Opinion: councils are the wrong target for anger over failing public services

Council Tax keeps rising while public services are being scaled back, but it's not councils that should be blamed.

You might have noticed a story this week about how council's are levying a "green tax" on many households.

Research carried out by the BBC found that some households are being charged as much as £100 to collect garden waste, with only one in four councils now offering the service for free.

It's merely the latest in a long list of incidents where councils are either stripping back public services or charging households more for them. 

And of course, this comes off the back of hefty 4.5% Council Tax hikes – around £75 extra per household – rolled out in April. 

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Unsurprisingly, when tax increases or public service reductions hit the news agenda, the councils themselves come in for a bit of flak.

Some think they are just being greedy, milking residents for every penny they can get while cutting back on the services they provide.

This is unfair in my view, as it ignores the frankly staggering cut in the financial support the Government provides to our local councils.

According to data from the Local Government Association (LGA), by 2020 local authorities will have seen their core funding from the Government slashed by an astonishing £16 billion over the preceding decade.

That’s essentially 60p out of every £1 the Government had previously provided to go towards public services.

It’s also notable that 168 councils won’t receive any form of revenue support grant from the Government this coming tax year, a payment which has previously been a substantial portion of council funding.

A previous study from the LGA found that between 2016/17 and 2017/18 councils had to handle a funding shortfall of £2.4 billion.

Inevitably this means services are stripped back.

As the LGA puts it: “Councils now spend less on early intervention, support for the voluntary sector has been reduced, rural bus services have been scaled back, libraries have been closed and other services have also taken a hit.”

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Councils need to charge a fair rate

Realistically, it’s unlikely that councils are going to be receiving a windfall from Central Government to help them cover the services they provide.

As a result, it’s important that they are given licence to charge a fair Council Tax to provide them with the revenues to do just that.

It goes both ways though. While councils need to show they deliver value for money, there is a danger that they can go too far the other way and make a virtue of a stripped back service.

I live in the borough of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, a lovely little area that has all of the selling points of life in the shires, but with London only a 25-minute train journey away.

It’s a very attractive area for London commuters  three local towns made it into the top six places for London commuters in a recent survey by financial data site TotallyMoney  and interest is only going to jump when we get a Crossrail 2 station.

Basically, the area is pretty well-heeled and in demand from city workers.

And yet we have the lowest Council Tax in the entire country. A Band D property here pays around £130 a year, a fact that the council regularly trumpet while also explaining that further ‘efficiency savings’ are going to need to be found.

It’s a bizarre situation.

The council highlights the fact that it is one of the few in the country that has achieved “financial self-sufficiency”, and while this is obviously a good thing, it perhaps wouldn’t need to work quite so hard to find all of those ‘efficiencies’ if it wasn’t so obsessed with its spot as the authority with the lowest Council Tax in the nation.

Doing more with less

There aren’t a huge number of options open to our nation’s councils.

Many have already teamed up with neighbouring councils, sharing the financial burden for certain services which they can share between them.

The LGA reckons there are around 550 of these agreements in place, helping councils save around £805 million.

And while councils will be able to keep a greater share of the business rates paid by local businesses, this is offset by the revenue support grant being phased out.

Councils up and down the country have been forced to strip back services, some to breaking point, and Council Tax increases alone aren’t going to be enough to address the black hole in their funding.

Time for the Government to step up

When the Government stuck its oar in and asked for input on whether all councils should be forced to offer free garden waste collection, the LGA quite rightly responded that if this was to happen, it is the Government that must foot the bill.

Ultimately, if the Government spends a little more money supporting local councils in providing the services we all need then councils wouldn’t have to raise Council Tax at all.

What do you think? What's the main reason behind rapidly rising Council Tax bills and reduced public services? Share your views in the comments section below.


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