Friday, 13 April 2012

Thinking The Unthinkable?

If you thought there was a fight over this years Budget, next year's could be worse. The big debating point is whether Council Tax should go up. Have a read of the following from February's Full Council meeting. Its a long transcript taken from the webcast but this is the first argument about next year's Budget so it matters.
Cllr Clark (Chair): Cllr Driver.

Cllr Ian Driver: Yeah. Thanks Chair. Im gonna be supporting the recommendations but I think one thing that nobody’s mentioned yet and hopefully people will start talking a lot about and thinking about in the next year is where do we go from here. It really is…it really would be an economic miracle if we can continue to deliver services at the already reduced level we are delivering them in another year. There’s simply not the scope for further efficiency savings. There’s not the scope for re-organisations to save money. We’re running out of scope for actually cutting back and reducing services and goodness knows they are already reduced enough anyway.  And as well we cant carry on year on year giving the zero per cent pay rise to our staff or a one per cent pay rise in the case of Thanet when the cost of living is actually increasing at four per cent and beyond. So options have run out, this year is probably the last year when we will be able to get away with a zero per cent Council Tax rise and that I would say that all parties should give serious consideration in that planning for next year’s Budget, to look at the possibility of increasing Council Tax, and its not just me just saying that because its not been said so far. Tonight, Brighton and Hove Council are meeting tonight to debate a 3.5 per cent increase in Council Tax and if the BBC are to be believed, Labour-run Nottingham, Leicester, Darlington, Middlesborough, Barrow-in-Furness, Stoke-on-Trent have all voted to increase their Council Tax and it doesn’t stop there. Surrey, Chelmsford, Peterborough, Tory-run authorities are also increasing their Council Tax. The days of cutting back, saving, re-organising, driving down the wages of the people delivering the important social services are coming to an end. There’s no more wriggle room and this Council, if it does want to continue to provide decent services to the men, the women and the children who live in Thanet and the tens of thousands of visitors who come here. Next year we should be talking if we have no other options seriously about a sensible increase in Council Tax.

Clark: Thank you. Cllr Nicholson.

Cllr Nicholson: Yes. Thank you Chair. The Town Council precept for Ramsgate was mentioned. I think I should point out that there are several factors at play. One was the low tax base that we were starting at, therefore any increase was going to be in percentage terms vastly inflated. However, the organisation and the way that Ramsgate Town Council is run is very efficient. I’d also like to put on record, even though it isn’t really any business of this Council that the cross party support from the Conservative Member on Ramsgate Town Council voted to accept it and agreed it. And I’d also like to remind Members, at a previous Council meeting when a motion was moved, requesting free parking in Birchington, yes, some of the more excitable Members from the Party opposite, not all of them, but some of the more excitable ones were shouting “If you want it, let Birchington Parish Council and the people of Birchington pay for it”, so you can’t have it both ways. We will ensure a tight ship over that side of the island and work to the benefit of the people of Ramsgate who decided that they wished to have a Town Council. Thank you.

Cllr Clark: Cllr Green.

Cllr David Green: Thank you Chair. I’m surprised actually at the bare-faced cheek of the Leader of the Opposition to comment on Ramsgate Town Council’s precept because only months ago now, the people of Ramsgate totally rejected the Party that is in opposition and voted for a manifesto that we put forward for the Labour Party that explained that we needed to try in a small way to address the total neglect that his administration at TDC had imposed on Ramsgate. The residents of Ramsgate know that, that was existing, they wanted to put it right, they wanted small things done that would improve the environment and the vitality of Ramsgate and I’m pleased to say that over the coming year we are well equipped to do that, that change.

Cllr Campbell: We are already on the way.

Cllr Clark: Cllr King.

Cllr King: Thank you Mr Chairman and I would like to very much concur with what Cllr Driver said tonight, and I do welcome the fact it’s good to see some of the Councils now beginning to see the wood from the trees. The £2.5m that was rejected by I think Brighton Council in favour of a small Council tax increase and the return of real local services, services that had been cut to the bone for far too long, and it is right. I concur with Cllr Driver this cannot go on for very much longer, this is probably going to be our last year. All this will ever do is see the demise of real services. Now we are told for example and Im looking again at the street cleaning service, this is a disgraceful excuse of a service. 25 percent of the streets of Thanet get swept. 75 go unswept. This is not good value for anybody’s money and it in no way is a first-class service delivery. Our streets constantly are reported to me in Westgate which I serve as, with dog fouling. One of the biggest issues, dog fouling. We have a machine that can do the necessary work to remove it but we have no funding to have it operating. We need dog wardens to try to catch the perpetrators of this anti-social behaviour but we can’t afford to employ them. There is no such thing as a free lunch and if you are going to buy cheap you going to buy twice. So lets look at this at the backdrop of this area and the health of this area. This is one of the poorest and most deprived areas in the South East. In a recent National health report there were 32 indicators of deprivation and 15 of them were indicated for Thanet. Deprivation, child poverty, crime, smoking in pregnancy, least physically active children, teenage pregnancy, least physically active adults, obesity, mental health, alcoholism, diabetes, death from smoking and of course if you’re a man you die 10 years earlier and a woman 5. Now, you’ve got to look at it that you cannot keep on cutting back, if you are gonna improve the life of people in this very much deprived area and I fully support what Cllr Driver has said and that next year we must seriously look at implementing a small, modest rise in Council Tax. Thank you Mr Chairman.

Cllr Clark: Thank you Cllr King. Cllr Wells.

Cllr Wells: Thank you Mr Chairman. I would have to say I do wonder what planet some of my colleagues in this Chamber are on. They do admit to living on the planet Thanet but I think sometimes they have to look a bit wider afield to see exactly what is going on around us. In the week in which 53% haircut was taken as it’s called by investors in Greece, and Greece has narrowly avoided temporarily at least going to the wall, to hear calls for Council Tax rises, but only small ones Tom relative to what one can afford no doubt, in a circumstance where we are unlikely to see economic recovery because of the trade situation with the European Union, I wonder sometimes if I’m alone in understanding that calls for enhanced increased expenditure in such circumstances is actually catastrophic. There are situations where you can juggle within the Budget you have got, and if we were to have presented a budget from whoever presents it this point next year, which took some of those things that were not priorities, that were not as important to people and put forward the things that people wanted to do within the context of the money we have got, Im sure it would attract general and widespread support. To talk in terms of increased Council Tax, to talk in terms of increased and enhanced budgets, to talk in terms of looking at how and where this country has lived for almost 30 years beyond its means and to go back to that within in a matter of months is something I thought we would not hear for some time as common sense actually put its head forward. And whilst I enjoy Cllr Drivers many and varied interventions I think in this case, he should remove his head from his backside and think.

Cllr Ezekiel: Its always easy to follow that. I think Cllr Wells has articulated very well the position we find ourselves in and I think we still need to look at that zero increase next year. Its going to be tough. There are always tools, new management tools. Universities are developing these management tools that we need to ensure we are aware of and put in place. There are always machines if you want, that can do the work of other people. We do need to ensure our Council is run the most efficient way possible with the budget we have. I do feel even talking about an increase is wrong. We should be always looking to decrease. If were a private business you cant go out there and just increase your expenditure or your products. You have to look at other ways and continually look at other ways of reducing your expenditure in these very very tough times. And it saddens me when you have to lay people off, when I’ve had to lay people off because of reasons of trade or whatever but it also pleases me that there are small shops that are surviving and doing extremely well, and they are doing extremely well in Margate, in the Old Town, in Cliftonville, in Ramsgate. Just changing the subject slightly, I’m a little bit concerned to hear about the efficient Ramsgate Town Council. It can’t be as efficient as what the Charter Trustees were for example. I understand exactly the issues now that they can’t raise 137 but again we could be looking at other alternatives, which is what I propose, that we do look at other alternatives. I don’t want to go into details of that, but there is a ways and means where we don’t need expensive town councils ‘cause they are expensive. Let’s not run away from that, they are, and there are different ways this Council could raise funding and direct it specifically through community groups, through other agencies, that could deliver with Councillors being on a Board of Trustees or whatever for example, that means Cllr King, you could have a share of dividend from your Westgate residents without an additional cost or a very small increase. The amount to you would be significant. I suggest you explore some of these avenues rather than just say “We’ll increase tax”. That is not what we are about on this side. We will continue to look for other ways of being efficient and delivery and there are more modern ways to do that. Thank you Chairman.

Cllr Clark: Cllr Moores.

Cllr Simon Moores:  I wanted to express my support for one of Cllr King's statements and I did have a meeting with Officers on Monday on my shadow portfolio and I would say that we are suffering from an epidemic at the moment dog mess. It was something that I was going to look at. In fact I started the ball rolling in November of last year because we have an epidemic of dog mess, we have an epidemic of anti-social behaviour in regards to the ownership of dogs and we have problems with dangerous dogs in Thanet too, and I would urge Members opposite and in fact my Opposition colleague to look at this more closely, we need to actually establish probably a regime of zero tolerance or at least try a great deal harder to deal with a problem which is affecting a great many people in Thanet and been stressed to me by residents of the Westgate Residents association or indeed colleagues in Birchington. I cannot walk from my house in Westgate to the town without for example treading in something on the way and the same way when I walk to Margate on Monday for that same meeting I saw the same problem all the way across the seafront into Margate itself so I would urge members opposite or indeed my Cabinet colleague opposite to please take appropriate steps to try and mitigate the problem that we are now seeing with greater regularity in Thanet. Thank you.

Cllr Clark: Cllr Driver, you’ve already spoken but is this going to be a point of order or personal explanation?

Cllr Driver:  Yeah Chair, and I was named but wasn’t quick enough, but I tend to be polite in my interactions in this Chamber and the talk of heads and arses is hardly appropriate form a man I could talk of beards and genitalia. And I do not take lessons in economics from a man who masterminded a community hall in Broadstairs that would have bankrupt the local Council. And I do not take lessons in economics from a man who’s member of a party whose government will not introduce a Robin Hood tax on the bankers.

Cllr Clark: Cllr Campbell.

Cllr Campbell:  Thank you Chair. I’d just like to put this in context of the situation this Council actually finds itself in. The Government whose representatives opposite here have enacted a 29 per cent cut in the grant that’s given to Thanet. They haven’t cut that to the rich people of Ashford or Royal Tunbridge Wells. They’ve enacted it on the poorest area which is Thanet. That’s the situation we find ourselves in and that is why the services for this Council are diminishing. The fault lies with this Government.

Cllr Clark: Thank you. Cllr Harrison.

Cllr Harrison: I worry sometimes Chair that the members opposite have lost sight of the fact why we’re here, why we’re elected, why we stood for election because as I understood it to represent the people in our various wards and to try and make life a little better for them, try to somehow maintain what they already have. Well that means providing things like street sweeping, it means providing things like flowers in parks, it means keeping our open spaces what they already have and so I just worry that sometimes people get so wrapped up in this cut cut cut cut cut, it just seems to me they get some perverse satisfaction from making a cut here or making a cut there. No, its wrong, its completely and utterly wrong. And in this party we’ve always accepted that if you want a service, at some point its got to be paid for. At the end of the day, whether you run a local authority or whether you run a business, if you have a business providing a service to somebody, the user pays and that’s the basic principle, you cant get away from it and its exactly the same in local authorities. If the residents of an area demand services from their local authority, they have to be prepared to put their hands in their pockets and pay for it. And if at some point it means an increase in their Council Tax, well so be it. And you do have a duty and a responsibility to keep that increase to a minimum, but if people are demanding services from a local authority, whatever local authority, it has to be paid for, and at the end of the day the user pays. Let’s remind ourselves while I’m on my feet about dogs fouling and zero tolerance and I know I’m getting old and senile and I forget things but I don’t forget that I was the Cabinet Member responsible for the introduction of the dog fouling legislation in this District. I was the Cabinet Member at the time and as far as I know we still do, we hold the national record maximum fine for dog fouling and that was approaching £800 from memory when somebody allowed their dog to foul. I’m very proud of that, but of course lets march forward to 2003, whenever it was when all of a sudden dog fouling wasn’t a priority anymore and we found the dog wardens slowly disappearing from around the island, pop pop pop pop pop  until eventually they all went and the last dog warden was I believe is now working as security in the reception downstairs. So yeah, lets not have any more lectures and lets not have anymore bleating about all the dog fouling and how terrible it all is because remind yourselves who removed the wardens from this Council, it was you lot over there in 2003.

Cllr Clark: Cllr King, you had your hand up but you’ve spoken, have you got a point of order or personal explanation?

Cllr King: No, I was named actually Chair. Id like to reply. I was named by the Conservative Group.

[a bit about responding to being named]

Cllr King: Maybe I believe that I have been misrepresented by what’s been said about my attitude and what I’ve said here tonight regarding Council Tax. We’ve heard here tonight the term “tough times” and “tough decisions”. Would somebody probably from the, I won’t name anybody, but from the Conservative Group like to tell me what their interpretation of a tough decisions is, that has to be made by a multi-millionaire? Is it the same tough decision that is being made by an old age pensioner couple on a high rise estate who have to say "Shall we put our radiators on tonight or shall we have something to eat"? Is that the kind of tough decisions? These are the kinds of tough decisions, this is the kind of attitude I’m coming from. Mr Chairman, I haven’t finished, because the attitude that is coming from the Conservative Party tonight is to me, it is their trying to promote not so much the trying to tell us about the deficit and this is why we’ve got this terrible bills to pay and this deficit to pay. Is this really about that, or is this a return to some old ideology, an ugly ideology, one that last raised its head about 25 years ago? It was a time when the long shadow of Thatcher had spread all across this land, the time when the rich got richer and the strong got stronger, and the weak and the poor got left to fend for themselves. Is this the road we’re gonna go back on? Is this the road we’re gonna go back on? That’s where Im coming from, Mr Chairman. Thank you for listening to me.


Anonymous said...

What can one say apart from "Help!" I suppose the blame lies with the electorate in a democracy, but even then, folk can only elect who or what is presented on the ballot paper. No wonder so few turn out to vote.

Interesting to see that it is all still down to Thatcher. In truth we have been going downhill since Ramsay MacDonald started to screw up government in this country.

Chuck Collins said...

Ye Gods!
You couldn't make it up.
And these are the people 'responsible' for what goes on in Thanet.
No wonder nothing ever happens beyond 'defer to next meeting' ... whlst Council owned properties rot and decay through neglect.
If this account is true, then I say again ... Ye Gods!

Tim Clark said...

Buried in amongst all the political posturing is a grain of truth - a zero rise in Council Tax in an era of rising costs is in real terms a reduction in revenue. Much as I dislike him Cllr Driver was right to raise the matter because it is going to have to be addressed somehow.