Posted by:1 February, 2012
Ministers have opened a new front in their fight to secure a council tax freeze across the country.
Having appealed to councillors’ morality and warned them of imminent electoral punishment if they increase council tax next year, ministers have returned to the fail-safe option when stuck in a tight policy corner - a bit of public servant bashing.
It began on Wednesday when communities secretary Eric Pickles admitted a number of council leaders had contacted him to express concerns about the financial viability of the government’s one-year freeze funding.
“They seem to be divided into two,” he said. “Those that say ‘my officers tell me’ in the first sentence, and those that say ‘my officers tell me’ in the second sentence.”
On the very same day local government minister Bob Neill wrote for Conservative Home: “Council finance officers may want to fill their town hall coffers,” he said. “Yet the last thing any councillor with his or her heart in the right place should want to do is to put up local taxes now. Instead, we need to provide real help now to families’ cost of living.”
Officer-baiting has traditionally been a Conservative sport, but on council tax it appears the coalition is more solid than it is on other issues with Gerald Vernon-Jackson, vice chair of the LGA and leader of the body’s Liberal Democrat group, leading the charge.
Speaking to an audience made up almost entirely of local government finance officers on Friday, he revealed that one of the jobs of elected political is to “is protect the people from rapacious council officers who always want to push the council tax as high as possible”.
His almost-Dickensian description of finance directors brought a smile to the face of Mr Pickles as he walked to take the stage. “Your comments about rapacious finance officers warms the cockles of my heart and makes me realise the coalition is stronger than ever,” he said.
Jokes aside, he went on to issue a stern warning to the many finance officers assembled before him. There was, he said, “a danger here of being involved in politics” in the way increases recommended were not breaching the 3.5% trigger for a referendum. This was, he warned, “a highly political decision” and, turning his ire on members, he said those heeding such advice “would be advised to move over and let their councils be run by the finance officer”.
It is interesting that the attack on officers has come into play only since Conservative authorities told Mr Pickles where to put his money.
Presumably, the secretary of state’s intention is to make it clear that no Tory leader would themselves propose or support a tax rise - it would have to come from “rapacious” officers full of sob stories about empty coffers and threatened services.
Unfortunately, this train of thought ultimately leads to the conclusion that there are some Tory leaders out there - say in Cambridge, Surry or Peterborough - who are too feeble minded to have their own ideas or stand their ground.
But I’m sure that’s not what Mr Pickles meant.
From Ruth reports...
Ruth Keeling covers local government’s corporate core including management, finance, human resources, legal and communications.