I received my council tax bill today. As always, it is impenetrable. In terms of transparency, clarity and accountability, it rivals the political and legal structure of the late medieval Holy Roman Empire.
It’s headed ‘Oxford City Council’ and says I must them pay £2599.99. Except hardly any of it is for them. Most of it is for the County Council; for some reason, this as shown as 2 separate amounts. The larger amount is footnoted ‘The council tax attributed to Oxfordshire County Council includes a precept to fund adult social care, visit www.oxford.gov.uk/counciltax. No, Won’t. Shan’t. Just explain right here and now, in English (how many people know what a ‘precept’ is – sounds like something out of Trollope.) Likewise, there are two amounts for the City Council, one marked ‘special expenses. Councillors’ sauna? I think we should be told. But we aren’t. And some is for ‘PCC for Thames Valley’. Probably most people can guess the missing word here is ‘Police’. But why not just say so? (Or what a PCC is. My wife, not unreasonably, thought it must be the parish council.)
Inside is a note explaining that the amount I’m required to pay is based on the value of my house. Using values dating from 1991. That might as well be contemporary with the Holy Roman Empire.
Inside also are leaflets from the County Council and PCC explaining how they spend the money: The City doesn’t think I need bother myself with that, though there is a nice leaflet about waste disposal, a subject that interests me hugely. I too would like to see less waste.
The County Council explain that they spend £828.9m ‘excluding schools (£663.7m)”. It does not explain why schools are excluded, and later on tells me that, despite having excluded schools, they do actually spend £192.4m on ‘maintained schools’, leaving the average reader in the dark about where money comes from whom schools and who spends what on which schools. (They also tell me that they too spend money on waste, as well as the City. Isn’t that duplication…wasteful?)
As to Business Rates – how they are set, how they are divvied up, locally and nationally…a mystery within a mystery, for advanced students only (and anyway it changes every year or so). Yet it is something that has a powerful influence on councils’ thinking about development.
The most opaque leaflet is by the Police and Crime Commissioner who cover two counties besides Oxfordshire. It’s entirely unclear who takes what decisions. He says the Government have set ‘the police grant’ and told him what he should raise locally which he then did. So, who actually decided the budget? Income is shown as coming from, amongst other things ‘CLG Formula Grant’. One day, maybe, we’ll welcome out the shadows the group known only as ‘CLG’. One of the oddest things in the leaflet is that it’s unclear whether it’s the CPP or TVP talking. ” The police funding settlement enables us to invest to expand our capabilities…” One has the sense that the PCC and TVP are really one outfit. Well, that wasn’t the idea.
But don’t worry, it’s all democratic. The PCC asked …well, he asked some people and 2,814 of them, said yes, increase the precept. As the Government told you to do. Of course, that leaves just a million citizens not having any say. Democracy, the Tory way.
hope that’s all clear. Because that believe it or not is the bit that’s above the water. Below are the murky depths. To an extent that is staggering, in recent years we have seen huge amounts of power and public money and decision making channelled into unelected, sometimes highly secretive bodies, some with councillors on them, some not, some packed with vested interests such as developers and landowners (I am endebted to an excellent analysis by a group of former council staff who campaign for great transparency and clarity in local government finance, here)
Some of these bodies ‘consult’ in random and often obviously inadequate ways, some never do. They don’t publish their papers or their minutes. You can’t meet them and talk to them, other than through councillors who may not themselves have any access. Yet (or maybe ‘therefore’) Government increasingly prefers to work through them. And increasingly huge planning decisions and huge amounts of money are the province of these groups, not the elected local authorities. And decisions made by these bodies tightly shape and constrain decisions taken by Councils on their own spending.
Then we have the current vogue for bidding funds, where Government hands out money for certain specific purposes, Council’s bid for them, and most of the money goes to Tory-run councils. Another American institution imported by our mini-Trump: ‘pork barrel politics’.
A true and uptodate picture of what public money is being spent by whom in Oxfordshire would be fascinating. But it doesn’t exist.
What is so odd about the complete lack of interest by these councils in explaining anything of this to those who pay them and who consume their services, is that they have a tremendously important story to tell, and one which won’t be told by anyone else. Such as. Since 2010, central Government has cut funding for local authorities far more deeply than its own spending. Central Government has handed responsibilities to local government but without adequate funding for them. Central Government can spend whatever it likes and just borrow, local government cannot borrow and is very tightly restricted in its ability to increase taxation. Due to COVID, local government revenues have slumped, yet demand for services has soared.
You might think that local authorities would be desperate to convey this story to residents. Not a bit of it. I’ve never seen any effort to do so from either County or City Council. It is an extraordinary own goal.
Does any of this matter? Don’t normal people just open their tax bill, grumble a bit and then pay up? Who cares what it’s for, and who spends it?
I passionately believe it does matter. In fact, it matters today more than ever. Because confidence and trust in authority is lower than ever. Because we are at the start of an economic and fiscal crisis unprecedented in many generations. Because the gap between what people would like to see in terms of local services and what can be afforded is enormous, and growing.
If we don’t give ordinary people basic information about how the financing of local government works, the pressures on it, what is being funded and what has to be left out, we open the way to disinformation, alienation, rumour, misunderstanding – which I see every time I look at the comments on the Oxford Mail website. We are creating the conditions for a breakdown in civic society.
Now I suspect that if I took councillors or council officers to task for their quite extraordinary failure to explain their finances publicly, they’d say: oh, it’s so complicated, you can’t expect the average citizen to understand.
I utterly disagree - on the basis of a career in public finance myself. Failure to explain, to someone who’d like to understand, is ALWAYS, ALWAYS the failure of the explainer, a failure of their understanding of their duty ss officials, a failure of their understanding of communication, of language itself. It IS possible. It’s just in the self-absorption way of authority, everywhere, that it just can’t be bothered.
As proof of that I offer two observations, one about councillors, the other about myself:
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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