It’s breathtakingly cheeky of the Communities Secretary to describe local authorities as ‘undemocratic’ where they raise tax levels by just under the 2% threshold. Councils are political bodies, elected by their citizens, and have a mandate to act
Eric Pickles launched a fresh salvo in the rhetorical war over council tax with a provocative article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday. In typically forthright language, the Communities Secretary takes to task local authorities that are not heeding his call to freeze council tax for another year.
His ire is particularly focused on those ‘democracy dodgers’ that are raising council tax to a level just below the 2% threshold at which it must trigger a local referendum. These councils, he argues, are ‘treating their residents with contempt’ and will be punished when the next financial settlement rolls around. ‘We will take into consideration anybody cheating their taxpayers,’ he threatens. ‘Anybody using loop holes will lose out next year.’
Let's get the areas of agreement out the way first. Beneath the bluster, the Secretary of State is right about some important things. It's right, of course, to want to save money and deliver services more efficiently, though, as Pickles acknowledged in his statement on the financial settlement, local government is by far the most efficient part of the public sector and has delivered savings year on year for nearly a decade.
It's also true, and important, to argue that localism should mean that what councils do and what they spend should be determined by local people and not by Whitehall.
Beyond this though, many councils will be uncomfortable with some of the messages contained in the article.
Yes, we need to give local people more say over the public services they use and the way in which their taxes are spent, but that means having honest, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations with the public. But for the Secretary of State to say that what ‘residents really want is cuts to taxes not bin collections’ is perilously close to endorsing what Ben Page of Ipsos Mori has described as the British people's ‘impossible dream’ of Scandinavian welfare provision on American taxes.
More fundamentally, it's problematic, not to mention breathtakingly cheeky, to describe councils raising tax below the threshold as ‘undemocratic’. Local authorities are political bodies, elected by the people they represent. That gives them a mandate to act.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer does not feel the need to have a referendum on every tax change he makes. Quite rightly, he believes that his endorsement by the electorate entitles him to make decisions. Why should there be one rule for national politicians and another for local ones. Where does it end? If we are to have referenda on council tax increases why not on budget setting, or housing allocations?
We do need to have a far more participative approach to local and national politics, but we need a much subtler account of this than simply voting on every issue. Quite aside from the time and expense involved, regular referendums will make effective governance impossible.
It's also disingenuous to complain that people are setting rises just below the threshold. That's exactly the effect a threshold will have, which is why Pickles and others were quite right to criticise the endless target setting of the previous Labour administration.
In the end it comes down to how you see localism and to whether the government is willing to back up its claim to have ‘devolved powers and devolved finances to local government, so people have more flexibility than ever before to transform their services’.
A truly localist approach would be to set no threshold at all for council tax increases and leave it as a matter between councils and their electorates.
It's easy to be a localist when people do things you agree with. The Secretary of State would do well to remember that the true test is whether you're willing to abide by local decisions that you don't like.
Jonathan Carr-West is director of the Local Government Information Unit