WALTER CRONXITE reports on a piece of political posturing which will do little to improve the standard of social care and other services provided by local councils
For Tony Newman and his Labour councillors who have been fretting over how they present their budget for the 12 months through until the next local elections, the news yesterday must have been like seeing the cavalry riding over the horizon to the rescue: true-blue Tory-run Surrey County Council wants to increase its Council Tax by 15per cent.
Not since Derek Hatton and Liverpool council roundly rejected the government’s financial settlement for local authorities have the little guys in Town Halls and County Halls around the country answered back to Westminster with such force of argument. Interviewed across broadcast media yesterday, David Hodge, the Conservative leader of Surrey County Council, made it clear that his local authority simply can no longer manage with the inadequate funding they have been given by central government under the austerity measures of Tory-led governments of the past six years.
“The government has cut our annual grant by £170million since 2010, leaving a huge gap in our budget,” Hodge said.
“Demand for adult social care, learning disabilities and children’s services is increasing every year. So I regret, despite us finding £450million worth of savings from our annual budget, we have no choice but to propose this increase in council tax.”
Except it ain’t going to happen. Senior Tories in government have made sure of that.
Hodge was only stating what many local authority leaders have been saying for four or five years, as the crisis in social care provision has steadily worsened.
It is calculated that there will be a funding gap of at least £2.6billion in adult social care across England by 2020, with the Conservative government passing the buck down the line, refusing to raise taxes to satisfy their low taxation mantra, while blocking councils from increasing their revenue streams by more than a pre-ordained cap.
The difference with yesterday’s news was that it is a Tory local authority leader breaking ranks with his national party’s leadership.
Yes, there is something deliciously amusing that Surrey happens to be where Tory MPs Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Sam Gyimah, Chris Philp’s old business partner, have their constituencies. But when putting £200 extra on Band D bills is put to a vote among our Surrey neighbours in May, none of those MPs will vote in favour of the hike and in all probability, nor will the majority of their constituents.
This generation of Tories love a referendum (and look where that’s got us).
Politically, Cameron’s Conservatives have used referenda to pass the political buck on tough decisions. That’s what Eric Pickles did when he was local government minister in 2012, when he legislated that all local authorities, if they wanted to increase the Council Tax which they administer by more than his government dictated, would have to hold a referendum.
Pickles calculated that councils might as well carry out a poll of turkeys for their views on Christmas dinners. He was right, and so since then there’s been only one referendum on Council Tax, and that was roundly defeated.
The key with all referenda is what question is asked, and the question to be put to the stockbroker belt in May can surely elicit only one possible response.
That did not stop Croydon’s Labour council leader Newman “applauding” his Conservative counterpart in Surrey for his “honest politics”. But was it?
By pitching his county’s Council Tax rise at 15per cent, Surrey’s Hodge has illustrated the scale of the financial problems facing local authorities. But for all his hand-wringing on television and radio yesterday, he will also have known that he was presenting a proposition that could never pass.
There have been rumblings from Conservative-run local authorities for months now, as they have joined Labour councillors in protesting at the deep damage being done by on-going Tory austerity. Surrey’s plea yesterday was “like a canary down the coal mine” according to the generally sympathetic leader of Conservative Windsor council – where Prime Minister Theresa Maybe has her parliamentary seat.
Yet the settlement from central government to County Hall in Kingston these past three years has been a good deal more generous, in proportion to population and demands on services, than anything which Croydon has received.
So what will Newman and his finance guru, Simon Hall, come up with when they set Croydon’s Council Tax for 2017-2018, the period immediately before the next local elections?
They are allowed an increase of up to 4per cent as the social care precept, plus another 2per cent to pay towards the council’s other responsibilities. As Surrey’s Hodge demonstrated yesterday, such increases barely scratch the surface in terms of the funding needed for the demand for services. Last year, Newman’s Labour council opted for the maximum increase allowed then before they would need to hold a referendum – 3.9per cent.
That was then. This year? Croydon’s Council Tax will be set at a level determined not by what is needed to provide the level of service which the borough’s elderly, poor and most vulnerable require, but at a level which Newman calculates will cause him least political damage in an effort to be re-elected at the 2018 Town Hall elections.
And just as in David Hodge’s Surrey, there won’t be enough public money to maintain public services at a standard most reasonable people expect or rely upon.
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