Thursday, 24 January 2013

Council Cuts and Council Tax

Here's the uncut version of my letter to the Weston Mercury (published with some cuts today) in response to their article last week on the proposed council tax increase. If you want to know what they cut, it's the part in the last paragraph referring to the government's austerity programme and dismantling the welfare state.

"I write in response to your article on the likely increase in council tax this year. The article states that the reason North Somerset Council are proposing a council tax increase is because of unfavourable government grant funding. It may well be the case that North Somerset Council has been historically underfunded by central government, but the reason the council are proposing a council tax increase this year, is because of massive cuts to their funding from central government, which are part of the government’s failed austerity programme. In North Somerset these cuts amount to £86 million over the period 2011 to 2018 – this is about half the council’s spending on services. So let’s be clear - the Coalition government’s public spending cuts are being passed to local authorities across the country to implement. Increases in council tax are not about unfair funding, they are about massive public spending cuts. Cuts, which the Coalition government seem to think that councils can implement with a few back office efficiencies, when in fact the cuts are so severe that front line services already have been and will continue to be cut – youth services are an example in North Somerset.

So why are the council considering a council tax increase this year, and haven’t done so in the previous 2 years, since the cuts began in 2011? The reason is that in 2011 and 2012 the government offered councils a bribe to keep council tax frozen – they called it a council tax freeze grant. This grant was an equivalent amount of money to that which councils would have got if they’d increased council tax by up to 2.5%. It seemed like a good deal at the time. The problem with this was that whereas an actual council tax increase would stay in their budget for every year there after, the council tax freeze grants were for one or a few years only. And all these freeze grants will disappear from council budgets in 2015, leaving massive budget holes – in North Somerset’s case that will amount to about £4 million less in their budget than they would have had if they’d actually increased council tax.

This year the government have offered councils a 1% council tax freeze grant, and councils across the country, including North Somerset, have realised that this is no longer a good deal, particularly given that the rate of inflation is currently around 3%. Councils have realised that if they don’t start increasing council tax by very small amounts now, they will have massive holes in their budgets by 2015 and this in turn will make way above inflation council tax increases necessary in future years – the alternative would be even greater cuts. If you think your wages haven’t kept up with prices, then exactly the same is true of councils’ budgets as a result of the council tax freeze grants. As a result this year councils across the country have no option but to increase council tax in order to protect the vital public services, which they deliver to the most vulnerable people in our society.

So, when your council tax bill arrives this year, think about why the council have had no option but to increase it. Think about the services you receive if you have children, if you have elderly or disabled relatives, or if you are old and disabled yourself. Think about the government’s austerity programme, which has failed to reduce the deficit, has choked off economic growth, and is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. Think about a government that is using public spending cuts to dismantle the safety net we call the welfare state. If you’re unhappy with the council tax increase blame the Coalition government, and do something about it by either writing to your MP, joining your local Anti-Cuts campaign group, or making your opposition known in some other way. In fact, let’s have a referendum on council tax increases and the government’s public spending cuts."

Local Government Pay - UNISON members survey

As part of the NJC Pay Matters campaign the Local Government Service Group has launched an online survey at the link below:

Please give your views by taking part in the survey - the closing date is 8th February.

The joint trade unions (UNISON, UNITE and GMB) have now submitted the pay claim to the employers. It is an extensive document, which can be downloaded here. It outlines how poorly paid local government workers are in comparison to other public sector workers, and the private sector. After 3 years of a pay freeze local government workers have lost about 13% of their pay. Almost 20% of North Somerset Council staff earn an hourly rate which is below the living wage of £7.45 an hour. The lowest paid local government workers now earn only 10 pence above the minimum wage. Many local government workers, including North Somerset Council workers earning under £21,000 did not receive the £250 pay increase promised by George Osborne. Inflation has been high over the period of our pay freeze, it was falling, but is now on the increase again. The Local Government pay claim demands ‘a substantial flat rate increase on all scale points as a step towards the longer term objective of restoring pay levels and achieving the Living Wage as the bottom NJC spinal column point’.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Youth Services Cuts - Appeal granted

The following article by Simon Angear appeared in this week's Weston Mercury:

Judge lets Aaron appeal against youth cuts

NORTH Somerset Council is facing a fresh battle over its decision to slash youth services after a judge granted a disabled youngster permission to appeal against the move.

Aaron Hunt, 21, from Banwell, attends Weston’s Escape youth club for disabled young people which is threatened by the council’s budget cuts, and launched a legal bid to have the decision - taken in February last year - reversed.

Aaron, who has learning difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, claims the council’s move was unlawful.

However his judicial review challenge to the decision was thrown out by Mr Justice Wyn Williams in the High Court at Cardiff in July last year.

But on Tuesday, Aaron won permission to appeal against that decision, after his barrister, David Wolfe QC, persuaded Lord Justice Toulson, sitting in London’s Civil Appeal Court, that it is ‘arguable’ the High Court got it wrong.

The barrister told the court that Mr Hunt used to attend the Escape Club on the Bournville estate, which provides social and educational opportunities for disabled youngsters aged between 11 and 24.

Since the council’s funding decision – which stripped 72 per cent of money from youth services - the club has been moved and ‘remains under threat of closure’, Mr Wolfe said.

The High Court had given the council the thumbs up to make the cuts, after ruling that its public consultation process prior to the move had complied with their duties under the Education Act 1996 and the Equality Act 2010.

Mr Wolfe today disputed that ruling, saying that, under the Education Act, a general consultation was not enough and that young disabled people ought to have been specifically consulted about the proposed changes, as they were the group affected.

“Young people ought to be involved in this determination. That is absolutely clear, and that is not what happened here,” he told the court.

The barrister also argued that councillors had not been in possession of a full Equality Impact Assessment before making their decision.

Lord Justice Toulson, granting permission to appeal, said that while North Somerset had ‘engaged in a wide consultation process with the public’ it was ‘arguable’ that process was ‘not good enough because it was not aimed at young people with disabilities’.

The case will now go forward to a full hearing before three Appeal Court judges, at a later date, yet to be set.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

North Somerset Council Budget Debate - 15th January

This was the first time the council had the opportunity to debate its budget and alternative budget proposals, due to the lateness of the local government financial settlement - councils received news of their funding in the week before Christmas, and there are still a number of grants that they don't know about - for children's services and small business rate relief. As the council's Section 151 Officer said - the situation is changing on a daily basis.

The debate was also made difficult because of the council's sound system - microphones were not working, and the hearing loop and powerpoint projector seemed to be causing interference. The engineer present at the meeting tried to sort the problem but couldn't. This is a major issue for local democracy if either councillors cannot hear the debate and members of the public in the public gallery cannot hear the debate. One of the Executive members has said he will sort it out.

The budget and opposition groups' alternative budgets can be found under 15th January Council meeting at this link:

The council leader began the budget debate - introduced the council's latest budget report and also proposed a council tax increase of 1.5%, much to my surprise.

The Opposition groups - Green/Independent, Lib Dem and Labour put forward their amendments, while noting that it had been difficult to produce alternative budgets this year, because the council's own budget has  little detail on £1.6 million of extra directorate cuts - there is no indication of what services will be impacted and what the staff impact will be. Opposition councillors also argued for the council to reject the freeze grant, increase council tax by 2%, reduce contingency, and use some of the council's reserves. This would then enable them to put money into the budget to support youth clubs, carers, voluntary sector services, and retail development amongst others things.

Councillor Leimdorfer made the point that a 2% council tax increase amounts to about £25 a year for the average council tax payer, and that the difference between a 1.5% and a 2% increase for the average council tax payer is about £6 a year and yet the council would rather penalise 9000 low income families in North Somerset who will lose an average of £165 a year because of the new Council Tax Support Scheme, which the council also voted through at tonight's meeting.

2 of the opposition budgets also included charging council staff to park. As the UNISON Rep present I was asked by Councillor Lake for my view on this, and I made it clear that although we recognise the valid reasons for this proposal, particularly the difficult situation caused by charging central Weston residents to park, and also encouraging staff to use more sustainable methods of transport, but that at this time after 3 years of a pay freeze and a number of years where staff terms and conditions have been chipped away, most recently the new flexi time policy, that this would be the final straw for our members. As a result UNISON cannot support this aspect of the opposition budgets, but there are other things in the opposition budgets that we do support.

The council's Executive will consider the opposition amendments and produce a final budget report for their meeting on 5th February, which will then be debated at the full council meeting on 19th February, where the budget will be set.

Here's my speech from tonight's North Somerset Council meeting:

"I imagine that most if not all of you would like to give Eric Pickles a punch in the face. Apart from the obvious fact of the massive cuts to funding, the lateness of the final local government settlement has made it very difficult for councils to set their budgets this year. The Local Government Secretary’s list of 50 ways for councils to make savings is patronising to say the least, and in North Somerset’s case there’s little on the list that the council hasn’t done already.

But rather than physically attack Mr Pickles and end up in prison for doing so, I’d like you to consider giving him a metaphorical punch in the face by rejecting the 1% council tax freeze grant for this year and either increasing council tax up to the cap of 2% or going for a knockout blow by increasing council tax above the cap, creating two budgets and putting them out to a referendum for the people of North Somerset to decide.

Our reasons are simple. As long as councils, particularly Conservative councils, continue to accept the council tax freeze grant, and as long as you keep council tax either frozen, or low, this reinforces the message that all is OK within local government. It seems to me that because you have accepted the freeze grant in previous years Mr Pickles and his colleagues at Westminster have been given the impression that you don’t need the income raised through council tax to provide vital public services to the people of North Somerset. This may also be the reason that they have not listened to your requests for increased funding. It is now time to send Westminster a message that the funding cuts are having a massive impact on the council’s ability to deliver essential public services, and that increasing council tax is the only option that you and other councils have.

North Somerset Council already faces a budget hole of £3 million from 2015 onwards when the previous 2 years freeze grants drop out. If you accept this year’s freeze grant that budget hole will increase to almost £4 million. This will make it necessary for you to agree well above inflation council tax increases for future years, or the alternative will be even greater cuts from 2015 onwards. But small increases this year and in 2014 would enable you to start recouping some of the income you have lost by accepting the freeze grant over the last 2 years. For instance a 2% increase this year, followed by a 2% increase next year will plug the £3 million budget hole you will have in 2015 when the council tax freeze grants drop out, and the cuts you are required to make will be that much less as a result. A council tax increase above the 2% cap would obviously further improve this situation.

I have previously expressed UNISON’s view that the public spending cuts are unfair because they are hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest – the Council Tax Support Scheme which you will be discussing this evening demonstrates that clearly. Reductions in council tax benefit will also impact on the almost 20% of council staff who earn below the living wage. If it wasn’t before, it is now crystal clear that we are not all in this together. Your staff and the services they deliver cannot take any further cuts. The North Somerset economy cannot take any further job losses, and the resulting loss of income for local businesses. It is plain for all to see that austerity is not working, and the prospects of a triple dip recession loom on the horizon. This in turn will create greater demand for council services.

This year it is crucial that North Somerset and other Conservative councils reject the freeze grant. Eric Pickles has spent the last two and a half years kicking local government from all sides.  Now is the time for councils to stand up to this government. Now is the time for councils to send a very strong signal that all is not well in local government. Now is the time for councils to stand up and defend their citizens. The way you can do this is to reject the freeze grant, and increase council tax up to the cap."

Friday, 11 January 2013

Why local authorities should increase council tax above the cap and put their budgets out to a referendum

Councils across the country are in the process of setting their budgets and deciding whether or not to increase council tax or accept the government's third year council tax freeze grant. The Tory council I work for, and whose area I live in, have accepted the council tax freeze grant in 2 previous years. Each year my trade union, UNISON, have asked them to refuse the freeze grant, because although it currently seems an attractive offer, it has dire consequences for the future. The freeze grant is effectively a bribe whereby councils are given the equivalent in funding of a council tax increase (this year it's a paltry 1%) as long as they don't increase council tax. But the problem with this is that unlike an actual council tax increase the freeze grant only stays in their budget for 2 years, whereas an increase in council tax stays in their budget for ever.

So for councils across the country who have accepted freeze grants, when these all disappear from 2015 they will have massive holes in their budgets. In the case of my council that hole amounts to close to £4 million currently, but if they accept this year's freeze grant the hole will increase to close to £5 million. This will mean even greater council tax increases or even more massive cuts from 2015 onwards. Given that George Osborne has decreed that austerity will last until 2018 and from 2015 my council are being forced to make approximately £10 million of cuts each year (and this is only top of the £50 million they will have made in the previous 4 years), this £5 million hole caused by them accepting the freeze grants amounts to half of these cuts. So these are the reasons UNISON has been arguing for councils to reject the freeze grant and increase council tax up to the maximum 2% cap.

The Tory led government have made it incredibly difficult for councils, not only by cutting central government funding by 30% over 4 years, but also by capping council tax increases - this year the cap has been lowered from 3.5% to 2%. If councils want to increase council tax above the cap they now have to create two budgets - one with a below the cap increase, another with an above the cap increase, and put both these budgets out to a referendum in their area so that the people can decide. This obviously comes at a cost to councils, and to my knowledge none so far have done this.

This year things have been made even more difficult for councils setting their budgets by the lateness of the announcement of their final funding settlement from government. This means that in many cases councillors won't have chance to debate proposals to cut their budgets, and opposition councillors won't have chance to put alternative budgets to the full council meeting. So much for local democracy!

The reason I think all local authorities, particularly Tory councils, should increase council tax above the cap, and ask their citizens to vote on their budget is to send a message to the Tory led government that it is simply not possible for councils to provide vital public services with 30% cuts to central government funding, and even further cuts from 2015. As long as councils continue to accept the council tax freeze grant, and as long as they keep council tax either frozen, or low, this reinforces the message that all is OK within local government and they can continue to provide quality services, with little money - this is simply not possible.

I realise that throughout the country low paid workers are seeing their incomes falling, and those who aren't working are seeing their benefits cut. The last thing they want is to see their council tax bills increasing, along with food, fuel and heating bills. BUT it is now time for councils to stand up to this government. Now is the time for councils to send a very strong signal that all is not well in local government. Now is the time for councils to stand up and defend their citizens. The way they can do this is to reject the freeze grant, propose a council tax increase above the cap, and put their budgets out to a referendum - that way all their citizens can decide.

North Somerset Council's budget report for their 15th January meeting can be downloaded here: and Appendices here:

The December 2012 update can  be downloaded here:

The Medium Term Financial Plan up to 2017/18 can be downloaded here:

Equality Impact Asssessments can be found here: