Cutting the Burden of Council Tax
For many years the flagship Conservative councils of Wandsworth and Westminster have shown the way on providing excellent services with a very low level of Council Tax. These two have been been emulated by Councils like Hammersmith and Fulhan which have put cutting Council Tax amongst the highest priorities of the ruling Conservative team. Here in Reading we are used to paying the highest Council Tax in Berkshire and receiving very mediocre services in return. In a number of areas services delivered by the Council have been found by outside inspectors to be “inadequate”.
The essential problem seems to me to be that all too often Labour equates higher spending with better services. This view is clearly shared by most Lib Dems. This leads them to accuse Conservatives who argue for lower Council Tax of wanting to cut or damage frontline services. Clearly in some cases Councils DO make decisions to cut some frontline services in order to keep spending in check. However, one does not automatically flow from the other. As the best Conservative Councils have demonstrated, it is possible through good leadership and management, to keep spending down while providing excellent services to residents.
Today we learned that the Conservative controlled Berkshire Unitary Council of Windsor and Maidenhead will be proposing a 4% CUT in their level of Council Tax this year. This is despite a Labour Government which has for years channelled money from southern England to Labour supporting areas in the north of England.
Reading Conservatives have pledged to freeze Council Tax if we take office this May. Maybe we are not being ambitious enough! However, after years of Labour administration in Reading there are many problem areas that will need to be addressed and often changes to structures and procedures are initially more expensive before they begin to show a return in lower costs. The search for “efficiencies” which the Council began last year with the help of accountants Price Waterhouse Coopers (something which we proposed) is already showing the possibility of saving £7.1m per year – that is more than twice what would have been needed last year to freeze Council Tax in Reading.
There is clearly much scope within Reading’s budget to make savings without damaging frontline services. Our commitment to freeze Council Tax is therefore clearly achievable even without the rigour that a Conservative majority administration would bring to spending. If anyone doubts this just think of the £1m Labour wasted on the one-way IDR scheme, or the several millions spent on developing plans for a new set of Civic Offices.
Some London Labour Councils have realised that continuous increases in Council Tax are not acceptable to the electorate and in this year of local elections in London are proposing a freeze. I wonder if Labour in Reading are thinking along similar lines in attempt to save the skins of some of their vulnerable Council seats. It will also be interesting to see how the high-tax-loving Lib Dems react. As predicted last year, 2010 promises to be politically fascinating both in Council elections and the General Election.