Friday, 4 February 2011

The Rich will always be with us, so let them pay for the privilege.

This is an edited and slightly adapted version of part of my response to Buckinghamshore County Council's consultation paper on its new budget, which I sent in today. The Council has to make big savings (this I acknowledge and understand) and has set out how it will do it and where the savings will come from.

I don't intend this post to cover all aspects of the consultation paper, but just two:

  • A couple of general points about saving money spent on bureaucracy and reducing funding for youth provision (this is because it is my line of work)
  • A critique of the decision to freeze Council Tax, the means by which local councils raise money from local people (this is because it pisses me right off).

What follows is a little more colourful than my response to the Council, but the argument is the same. What do you think?

1. Do you agree with the priorities in our Budget Strategy?


If you disagree, can you tell us what you would do differently?

You could save money by reducing costly, time-consuming and onerous bureaucratic impositions on Council employees. These include many health & safety and risk assessment requirements, cumbersome recruitment, employment and staff management (including disciplinary) procedures, and an excessive preoccupation with micro-managing not just activity but also - I'm sad to say - inactivity at all levels. I acknowledge that there is little chance of reducing some of these burdens, because the fear of litigation that pervades government at all levels emerges as responsibilities you can't often dodge. However, as a Council employee I am horrified daily by the financial cost of them and the drain they impose on both what we do and the morale of the staff who do it (or, increasingly, and in part as a result, don't do it). There is certainly room for manoeuvre. Some button-pressers and lever-pullers will have to go as a result of purging these often pointless procedures, but some of the savings will allow you to create new jobs at the point of service delivery and in the administrative functions that directly support them, which are too often, and mistakenly, the first to go.

With regard to my speciality, rather than requiring all but two youth centres to close if community groups can't be found to run them within a few months, you should either fund and sustain a youth centre in each of the larger towns in the county (this would be fewer than half the number you run at present) or whole- or part-finance someone else to do it for you. These won't just be places where kids can go to play pool and table tennis, but centres offering a whole range of services for young people, so there will be cost savings and outcome benefits through integrating our work with partners'. It is already done in parts of the USA and the Scandinavian countries. This will give the opportunity to offer informal and developmental social education to those often most in need of it, and will reduce expenditure on more costly and long-term remedial work later on.

2. Do you agree with the proposal to freeze Council Tax?


This decision is poor, unfair and shows weak leadership. The issue is not that poorer people can't afford a rise, but that richer people can. Buckinghamshire is one of the wealthiest counties in Britain. Sadly, it's also a good example of one of the most embarrassing things about Britain, which is the close and visible conjunction of private wealth and public squalor. Nothing shows this better than driving or (heaven help me) cycling along Burke's Road or Burgess Wood Road in Beaconsfield, crashing over potholes and slapdash road repairs past gated, 8-bedroom Hollywood mansions with four cars in the driveway, a nanny in every room and a gardener in every bed (or is it the other way round?).

Therefore you need to increase Council Tax on properties above a certain band. It will raise money, and you'll get away with it.

OK, higher income tax and reduced bankers' bonuses may or may not drive the wealthy abroad, but the citizens of Beaconsfield or Bledlow Ridge are hardly likely to move to Slough, are they? Nor are they likely to erode the Conservative Party's Ozymandian majority on the County Council, at least for the time being. So let them sell one of the Astons and, when they complain, make a gesture by fixing their roads first; but don't give in on the cash. Reinvest it in the more viable of the services you will otherwise be cutting. Who stands to lose? Maybe The Crazy Bear in Beaconsfield Old Town, BeetleBonnets Waxing Emporium and a few shoe shops, but that's about it.

If you really believe in 'the Big Society' - which is a noble idea with a longer heritage than many think, despite its present appearance of faddishness - then the fact that Buckinghamshire County Council raises more money locally and receives less in the form of government grants than almost any other should not just be celebrated, but extended.

Envy? Nah.

Here's your chance.

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