Sunday Guest: Spotlight Local Government

Today’s guest post is written by Councillor Jessica Powell of Torfaen County Borough Council, Jessica was elected in 2012 and is a graduate from Murray Edwards College Cambridge. Check out her blog here.

If you work in local government you’re bound to have heard this at some point. If you’re a local government councillor, chances are you hear it most days. People only want to talk to you when they have a problem, and nine times out of ten the fact they pay their council tax will be brought up as a reason why you ought to be sorting it out for them.

The thing is, we’re not just there for people who pay their council tax. If you’re a student, or are disabled, or on low income and in receipt of a CTR (Council Tax Reduction) you’re still entitled to speak to your local elected representative. It’s not like it’s a magic ticket to conflict resolution.

The other thing is that, whether you pay it or not, council tax is not the be all and end all you probably think it is. It tends to go up most years, yes, and it’s part of the give and take of you being able to do things like visit a library and send your kids to school, it’s true. But council tax only makes up, on average, a quarter of a council’s funding. In my own patch of Torfaen, just 13% of the council’s budget comes from council tax.

Your council will tell you all the details, probably via a nice leaflet you chuck straight in the bin / paper recycling.

Now I’m not saying that your council tax isn’t needed, far from it. Chances are it’s the only thing between your library opening on reduced hours or not opening at all, or some other equally emotive example of what that funding represents. What I am saying is that the UK is woeful at educating people how the services they use everyday operate. Everything is presented as black and white, all or nothing. It’s all about headlines and never about substance.

The truth about council funding is that it does largely come from tax – tax collected by central government which is then redistributed to local councils, via devolved government depending on the area you live in. The rest comes from business rates – collected by your council then largely pooled and redistributed by central government – along with any revenue the council manages to raise, and grants.

Never underestimate the importance of grants. Nor the strict rules surrounding their application. Grant money has to be used for a specific purpose, laid down in writing, and failure to stick to that agreement will result in clawback or even fines, leaving you worse off than you were before. Again, if you work in local government you get lots of comments about how disgusting it is the council is wasting money on x when it should be spending it on y because, like I said earlier, there is just no understanding that most of the time x is happening through grant money and y has to rely on the ever decreasing central budget.

Will public perception on all this change? My guess is not until the school curriculum on ‘citizenship’ and its ilk includes public finance. Given that the Chancellor himself seems fixated on pretending that public finance is the same as a household budget (the fallacy of composition), I’m not going to hold my breath!

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