Friday, 30 July 2010

Falling out of love with Eric Pickles

Over the past couple of weeks, I've posted a number of blogs agreeing with Eric Pickles about pay offs for chief officers, weekly bin collections and returning to the committee system.

But now, inevitably, our paths are diverging and this love affair must end.

Mr Pickles has made a statement today which seems to be the opposite of the localism that he claims to be advocating. He says that MPs should have the right to set a maximum increase in the council tax across England and that there should be local referendums if councils propose increases above this level.

Having a nationally set maximum increase is the very opposite of localism. There are a myriad of different circumstances across the country and each local authority will consider its own situation when setting the tax level for the coming year. Suppose a party stood in a council election on a policy of vastly increasing council tax in order to improve local services and they were elected on the basis of that promise. It would seem anti-democratic to then force them to have a costly referendum on exactly the same issue.

Mr Pickles is right that council taxes have to be reasonable and justified. At a time when residents are struggling with the economic situation, it would be pretty courageous (as Sir Humphrey might say) for a council to propose high tax increases. But, as the Conservatives have always argued in respect of voting reform, you can always vote them out at the next election.

So instead of costly referendums which are only going to be held after tax rises have come into force, why not develop a robust system for consultation before the tax level is agreed. It would be far cheaper and have the same effect. And let's allow local authorities the freedom to make their own mistakes rather than living by (yet another) central government diktat.

And while we're about it, let's also make town and parish council precepts subject to the same rules. This year, Cornwall Council set a tax rise of 2.9%. But many of the towns and parishes voted for their precepts to rise by far more. I agree that towns and parishes should be given more powers and responsibilities. But they need more accountability too.

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