What Barwell fails to tell you and the myths of Council Tax

This is the level of political “frankness” we can expect in the coming weeks.

Tim Donovan, BBC London’s political editor, asked his studio guest on Sunday whether he was “worried” by UKIP in Croydon.

Council tax form 4“Yes and no,” came the reply from the MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barfwell. This was less than a week after the chairman of one of his party’s ward associations in his own constituency had defected to UKIP, apparently over the way in which the MP had interfered in the candidate selection process.

It is hard to say what policies Barfwell’s Tory colleagues in Croydon – including several members of his constituency staff – stand for; they won’t, or they can’t, issue a borough-wide manifesto for the local elections on May 22. Draw your own conclusions about why that might be.

So prepare yourself for the local politics equivalent of two bar room drunks arguing over who has the ugliest dog. In this case, the ugly dog is the Council Tax.

Here is a truth which neither party will tell you: whoever takes charge of the Town Hall from May 23, the amount you pay in Council Tax will increase by the end of their four-year term in 2018.

Council Tax defies Newton’s Law of Gravity: what goes up never really comes down.

Supposedly appearing on the capital’s segment of The Sunday Politics to talk about UKIP, Barfwell used the platform to trot out a version of the line that the people of Croydon will undoubtedly hear many times between now and the end of May. “The last time Labour was in, they doubled Council Tax,” he said.

As you might expect from the ineffably duplicitous Barfwell, this is only half the picture.

The Poll Tax riots of more than 20 years ago: they marked the beginning of the end for Thatcher, and the beginning for Council Tax

The Poll Tax riots of more than 20 years ago: they marked the beginning of the end for Thatcher, and the beginning for Council Tax

Let’s remind ourselves of some facts about Council Tax.

It is a regressive and inequitable system that was introduced in a barely considered rush by Michael Heseltine when Thatcher’s Poll Tax proposals were causing riots on the streets of our major cities.

In the consensual political duopoly that we live in, neither Tories nor Labour governments have since sought to reform or replace Council Tax. Throughout England, Council Tax is still based on property valuations conducted in 1993.

Something which Barfwell will never tell you honestly is that, after eight years of florid-faced Mike Fisher’s Tory administration at the Town Hall and four years of a Conservative-led government at Westminster, Croydon’s Council Tax is higher than it ever was under the previous Labour council.

In the past four years, Croydon’s Conservatives have cut the council services that they provide by around 25 per cent, to the point where our streets are filthy, our bins are collected only half as often, school traffic patrols have been laid off, care for the sick and elderly reduced… The list goes on.

Yet since taking over at the Town Hall, Croydon’s Conservatives have increased Council Tax by 15 per cent.

Labour ran Croydon Council from 1994 to 2006. In that period, first under a Tory government at Westminster, then under the Blairites, central government policy was to reduce in real terms the amounts paid in grants to local councils, gradually shifting the tax-raising burden from Westminster to the Town Halls. So while John Major, Bliar and Call Me Dave can campaign nationally by promising cuts to income tax, they have been paying less money over to local Town Halls, who have been forced to raise Council Tax.

Council Tax is slightly complicated because it collects money for two authorities: here in Croydon, a portion of your Council Tax bill goes to pay for Greater London services such as the Met Police and the Fire Brigade.

Gavin Barfwell: asked for a straight answer, he said "Yes and no".

Croydon Central MP Gavin Barfwell: asked on television for a straight answer, he said “Yes and no”.

With Major and Bliar cutting local authority grants drastically, in the 12 years that Croydon Council was under Labour control to 2006, the borough element of our household Council Tax bills went up 97 per cent in real terms. So, Barfwell is almost right when he says it doubled.

What he fails to provide is that broader context of government policy on local authority funding. In the same period, 1994-2006, Council Tax in Westminster went up by a staggering 271per cent in real terms. Westminster is a Tory-controlled authority, so Barfwell won’t mention that. In our south London neighbouring borough of Bromley, Council Tax bills rose by 99 per cent in real terms in the same period. Apart from three years of LibDem/Lab joint control during the period in question, Bromley is another Conservative-run council.

Implicit in Barfwell’s half-picture is the spectre of a Labour council ratcheting up Croydon Council Tax bills. Labour – who unlike the local Tories have managed to issue a manifesto of policies for the May elections – maintain that they will freeze Council Tax for two years.

Not that they could increase Council Tax by much even if they wanted to, as Barfwell also well knows; it is his own government’s policy.

Under the ConDem coalition, there has been a strict 2 per cent limit on the amount of increases local authorities can make to their Council Tax (unless the council opts for a local referendum; imagine that!). In 2013, Croydon’s Conservatives turned down an extra £1 million grant from the government and instead raised Council Tax by as close to the maximum amount as they dared. Oddly, Barfwell has not mentioned that lately, either.

Council Tax “is a system that has lost almost all connection with the value of the property on which it is levied, and all effective connection with how much councils spend,” Anne Perkins wrote in The Guardian this week, arguing for a root-and-branch reform of the way we pay for local services. “It fails to deliver fairness between either people or place.”

In the meantime, the unedifying spectacle of bar-room drunks arguing over the degree of ugliness of that excessively ugly dog that is the Council Tax will continue to miss the point entirely. But maybe that’s exactly what the likes of Barfwell really wants.

Coming to Croydon

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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3 Responses to What Barwell fails to tell you and the myths of Council Tax

  1. davidcallam says:

    I agree with Anne Perkins.

    The time has come for a root and branch reform of local government finances. I prefer a property tax, because it’s easier and therefore cheaper to collect. But I’m open to persuasion providing we get back to a situation where at least 70 per cent of the money we spend locally is collected locally. I’m wholeheartly fed up with the spectre of local government having to go cap-in-hand to central government for most of its money and only receiving grants with chains attached.

    The whole system breeds sycophancy, which it is intended to do. It was devised, you may recall, by a Thatcher administration to prevent any local authority from defying central government.

    If you treat local councillors like naughty children, many of them will act like naughty children.

    And finally, don’t be a tease: if you think there’s a reason why the Tories can’t or won’t publish a borough-wide election manifesto, please spell it out.

  2. Did a Google search for “Croydon Council Conservative Manifesto 2014” and the first result is a link to the Labour site. Think that is 1-0 to Labour and own goals count double.

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