Mark Whitehead 01 February 2018

Council tax: a timely reminder

Council tax: a timely reminder

Lord Porter's warning that local authorities will have little choice but to raise council tax to pay for vital services is a timely reminder of a simple choice facing the British public: if you want clean streets, nice parks and an efficient rubbish collection service, you need to pay for them. What's more, if you want high-quality care for your elderly relatives, effective social services for the weak and vulnerable and good schools for the children in your community, you will have to pay for that too.

Central government has been eroding the financial base of local government for several years now and critics have repeatedly warned of the effect it will have on front-line services. The usual riposte is that 'efficiency savings' can be made without affecting the quality of services.

That formula reached the end of its days some time ago. Councils, as Lord Porter, who chairs the Local Government Association, reminds us, are now facing a huge gap between the cost of the services they feel they should provide - or are obliged by law to provide - and the money they have available to pay for them. The funding gap is now in the billions of pounds, and it's getting bigger.

Some local authorities have already taken advantage of the government's recent raising of the council tax cap which could mean increases of up to £80 a year for some households.

But as Lord Porter points out, even if every council made full use of the higher limit, it would raise just £540m by 2020 - less than a quarter of the funding gap which will have reached £2.3b by then.

Politicians of all colours, at local and nationals levels, have traditionally shied away from announcing increases in taxes of all kinds, including council tax. Understandably, they believe people will reject any such proposals and eject them from office.

But, as Lord Porter, a Conservative, seems to suggest, we can't go on like this.

Sooner or later, a government will have to find the courage to announce substantial hikes in taxes to pay for the kinds of services most people, when asked, say they want.

But how to square the circle of what people say they want and what they are prepared to pay?

The answer that appears to be gaining ground in local government circles could be a cross-party national commission involving politicians, academics, economists and other experts who can put the case for properly-funded good quality public services.

It could investigate the arguments in a non-party political way, backed by effective research, spelling out the alternatives: you can have properly-funded local services helping to create safe, stable and prosperous communities, and pay more in tax to achieve them, or you can have poverty, higher crime rates, widening gaps between the rich and poor and a failing education system, and save a few pounds every year.

To most people, if the arguments and the evidence are set out clearly and honestly, it will seem like a no-brainer.

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