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Thinktank calls for fees freedom

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Councils should be free to profit from planning, licensing, parking and building control fees, a thinktank has said.

The New Local Government Network argued that if councils were freed from national regulations on fee levels they could subsidise services under threat from public spending cuts, with means-tested rebates to reduce hardship.

It said regulated fees meant that councils subsidised the property industry by £500 for every planning application last year, and that areas with active night-time economies saw taxpayers pick up the extra costs of licensing enforcement.

The Communities in Charge report said: “Rather than local authorities simply ceasing to provide specific services, citizens should be given the option to pay for that service, if they want to use it, in a fair way.”

Report author Nick Hope said this approach would go beyond Barnet LBC’s controversial ‘easyCouncil’ because residents could be means-tested before paying.

“Barnet has explored some of this but means testing takes account of social justice,” he said. “Charges would be more acceptable to residents if they are seen to be fair.”

Mr Hope said councils might, for example, offer a fortnightly refuse collection but charge extra for a weekly one, or vary planning application fees depending on whether they wished to attract development.

Surpluses could be used to cross-subsidise services, and help councils to manage demand by stimulating or reducing use as required.

Polling for NLGN showed 45% of the public would support new charges for currently free services, and 46% increased charges for those already paid-for. But only 29%would support tax increases to maintain services.

Mr Hope pointed out that deputy prime minister Nick Clegg had called for local government to gain wider freedoms to set charges.

Click here to read a copy of NLGN’s report, Communities in Charge

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It is now three years since the Audit Commission published Positively charged (www.audit-commission.gov.uk/charging) and yet its messages for central and local government seem increasingly relevant given the attention charging is receiving in response to public sector funding cuts. NLGN’s report expands on our own recommendations to government to review the restrictions it places on councils’ charging powers – or at least to explain the rationale behind them. But our work also found that central government restrictions on charging are only part of the problem. There are many more local barriers to effective charging over which councils can exert influence. The lack of dialogue with local people about charging - as part of a wider conversation about what services to provide and how to fund them - is one of those. Another is the lack of transparent information, for decision-makers and the public, about the contribution charging makes to the funding of services. More freedom to charge (or to spend the proceeds) may help some councils, but many could benefit simply by using their existing powers better.

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