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Freezing council tax and a moral dilemma

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Even Edmund Burke, the Whig/Conservative MP and political philosopher, conceded that there were alternative possible views of giving citizens a voice a public policy making process. His classic role dichotomy - representatives as ‘delegates’ of constituents or ‘trustees’ to act with judgement in favour of the common good - is seen by most nowadays as an over-simplification. Not, however, by that latter-day Conservative sage, Eric Pickles, for whom two options is one too many.  

Our communities secretary comes from the ‘Cut the crap’ school of political theory, and his take on political representation, outlined in his recent speech at the Local Government Summit, is characteristically uncomplicated. Constituents can be narrowed down to HWDTs, “hard-working, decent taxpayers” – forget the skiving, icky ones and any non-taxpaying voters. Intelligent as they are (never insult constituents), they all share a single policy priority: lower taxes, always.

Councillors can, if they wish, see themselves as having a kind of Burkean choice. They can act as HWDT delegates and vote for the Government’s council tax freeze; or they can be trustees and consider the common good, which is of course defined by Government ministers and in this instance is: to vote for the council tax freeze. In truth, though, this choice is a delusion, for a councillor’s responsibility goes beyond personal role interpretation to their moral duty.

Peterborough City Council was the first of these party sinners to ‘come out’ and will be used for illustrative purposes here, but its reasoning is essentially the same as that of the other potential dissidents

As Pickles explained to the summit: Councillors have a moral duty to sign up to keep down the cost of living … a vote against the council tax freeze is a vote for punishing tax rises … a kick in the teeth to hard-working, decent taxpayers.

The minister’s excursion into political philosophy was prompted apparently by the growing band of Conservative councils threatening to join the now quite sunstantial number preparing to reject the Government’s funding incentive – equivalent to a 2.5% increase in council tax – in return for a second year’s tax freeze.

Peterborough City Council was the first of these party sinners to ‘come out’ and will be used for illustrative purposes here, but its reasoning is essentially the same as that of the other potential dissidents. I may have my principled objections to this centralist exercise in tax-capping under another name, but theirs are purely pragmatic: for their taxpayers, they reckon, this year’s offer is a lousy deal.

The 2012/13 tax freeze offer, no matter how ministers spin it, is not subtly different; it’s fundamentally different

Last year, Peterborough managed to absorb a more than 10% cut in its formula grant and, with the help of the Government’s offer – worth £1.5m – froze its 2011/12 council tax. Moreover, because that offer contained funding to cover its reduced tax base over the whole four-year Government Spending Review cycle, the council was able to build an additional £1.5m into its budget for each of the following three years – at least delaying the point at which cuts will have to be made to cover the ending of the grant.

The 2012/13 tax freeze offer, no matter how ministers spin it, is not subtly different; it’s fundamentally different – a one-off, rather than a four-year, grant. It changes all councils’ sums, and in Peterborough’s case would leave the council with a funding shortfall of £8m over five years.

The council calculates that this £8m would take, assuming the Government’s capping limits were to permit it without necessitating costly referendums, four years of tax increases of at least 3.5% to recoup, plus detrimental service cuts. Its judgement is that a better option for taxpayers and for the city as a whole – which would still have one of the lowest unitary authority tax rates in the country – is a 2.95% tax rise in 2012/13, fewer service cuts, and future tax increases significantly lower than 3.5%.

All of which presents quite a dilemma for Conservative councillors wrestling with their moral duty. Do they vote against the freeze and for punishing tax rises today, or for the freeze and even more punishing tax rises tomorrow?

Thank Goodness that conservativehome, Tim Montgomerie’s popular grassroots right-wing blog, is on hand to help them out (16 January). The problem is, you see, that Peterborough’s namby-pamby Tories really aren’t trying. They can still find the money “to bankroll the race relations industry” with a £54,000 grant to the local Race Relations Council.

“They spend £71,000 on three full-time trade union reps, £171,000 on non-statutory translation and interpretation services”, and apparently haven’t even considered getting their children in care stats down to the national average by throwing a quarter of the kids on to the streets.

I happened to read this within a day or so of seeing The Iron Lady, and really felt I was back in the 1980s and the early years of Yes, Minister, when Jim Hacker’s Ministry of Administrative Affairs was given responsibility for cutting local government bureaucracy. In one episode (‘The Challenge’) the Minister took a Heseltine-style trip down the river to the East London borough of Thames Marsh and its distinctly Livingstone-resembling leader, Ben Stanley.

Armed with his ministerial dossier, Hacker proceeded to list some of the ways in which the borough might trim its budget: scrapping plans for the artificial ski slope; closing down the feminist drama centre, the council’s weekly newspaper, the welfare rights department, and the gay bereavement centre; halving the members’ entertainment allowance – and the management entertainment allowance; cancelling the councillors’ fact-finding mission to Jamaica, and suchlike.

Just two things appear to have changed – apart obviously from the switch from sitcom to real life. First, Hacker would never have touched children in care: it just isn’t funny. Second, he and his advisers, in authentic Heseltine fashion, had costed their proposed cuts and could claim that collectively they would make a significant dent in the council’s budget.

Unfortunately, faced with Peterborough’s projected shortfall, conservativehome’s hit list really would need to get into children’s services before, as you might say, it even begins to hack it.

Chris Game, visiting lecturer, Institute of Local Government, University of Birmingham

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