Friday, August 05, 2011

Pickles 1 - Shameless Labour Councils 0

Eric Pickles has done what Eric Pickles does best today.

He has put information in the public domain that has 2 points to it - most importantly he is opening up the books of local government and shwoing tax payers exactly what they are (or aren't) getting for their money. But this has the added bonus side-effect of humiliating some councils (generally Labour run, but Tory ones too) who aren't doing their job properly.

Imagine this scenario. You are a large Labour-run authority interested not in the best for your local people but in your own re-election locally and in damaging the national coalition as much as possible. Along come those dastardly cuts (you know, the ones that take us way-way-back to 2007 levels) and you see an opportunity. Cut massively, slash services, impact as much as you can. Then blame the government and sit back as the votes roll in for Labour at the next local election and, hopefully, the next General Election. This is exactly what is happening up and down the land.

The trouble is that these councils have other choices before they start making deep cuts in local services. And today Eric Pickles shines the light on the assets those council have and urge them to think about using them before cutting. If I lived in one of those large Labour-run authorities I would be rightly angry that they were cutting, say, rubbish collection whilst owning an airport/football club/cinemas/golf courses (delete as appropriate).

Now I totally accept that many of these assets will actually be investments; we can't sell off the family-silver if, in fact, the family silver is generating income for the council (especially above that which could be obtained via other methods like banks, and a lot safer!). Councils locally, such as Breckland, I understand draw a decent income from their asset-investment and use this money to hold down council tax. Mr Pickles would approve I am sure. But frankly any asset which has been consistently either breaking even or making a loss needs to go.

And there is one last question - should councils own this stuff in the first place? If the asset doesn't produce an income (like a golf course can) and isn't in the community interest (as some football clubs can be), then why own it? And if possible could the poitn of the asset be achieved in some other way?

This is a complex issue which needs to be taken case-by-case. But the brilliance of the Communities Secretary (I am a self-confessed Pickles fan) is that in one sweep he has destroyed the arguement in the public eye about the need for deep and painful cuts at local level in certain places.

In the same way I don't believe Norwich City Council should cut one iota of service before "political assistants" (council employees paid to work for party political councillors) are removed or the salaries of top staff is cut, I wouldn't accept any cut whilst a council asset portfolio hasn't been publicly examined.

Take a look at any message board today - the standard comment is "I can't believe my council have cut X whilst they own a Y!!!". Another round to Mr Pickles, me thinks.

I urge everyone to get online, see what their council owns and start asking questions about it!


Norwich citizen said...

Antony, to be honest with you I feel Pickles is holding a loaded gun to someone's head in the form of a council tax freeze while all in the name of 'localism' and forcing the Councils to make cuts.

I for one argue that on your head so be it. If a Council wants to raise council taxes to fund services it has to justify it to the electorate and we at the ballot box get to decide during the next wave of local elections.

I do feel that the current way council tax is raised is unfair. (for the record before anyone starts to complaint that I seem to applaud the current council tax bands).
Furthermore I feel that we all should pay our fair share. Cameron said so himself that "we are all in this together." I very much doubt that statement. Especially as Norfolk County Council has some of the most inviting tax bands for second properties which does seem to benefit the wealthy. Should I also mention that Norfolk County Council is Conservative run. Good on your Norfolk County Council for making things fair.

Peter said...

I agree with your point that council assets which do make money should be kept in order to keep council tax down. Thank goodness someone actually understands that keeping certain assets instead of selling the family silver can generate revenue for the government.

Antony, I would go so far as to say even if they do break even they should stay as it is self-sufficient. Furthermore unprofitable assets should be sold.

The one thing that some would argue is that selling off council assets is selling the family silver and is privatization, which you probably ideologically agree with. I myself am more towards the centre ground and believe in a mixture of both public and private.

Selling a local nightclub is different to selling a stake in a local airport. They are both quantitatively and qualitatively different in terms of income revenue streams and also business plans.