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Posted by: John Brace | 16th January 2014

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Parliamentary ping-pong, “democracy dodgers” and the £556,789 in “forgotten cuts” at Wirral Council

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Parliamentary ping-pong, “democracy dodgers” and the £556,789 in “forgotten cuts” at Wirral Council

                         

Shortly before Christmas Wirral Council had a “budget options” meeting after the What Really Matters consultation. At this meeting cuts, based on the public response to the consultation for 2014/15 were in principle agreed to. Strictly speaking it was a new budget and policy framework that was agreed to. The budget for 2014/15 is to be decided in March 2014, based on the assumption that Council Tax on Wirral would rise by 2% in 2014/15.

So just to recap, the Labour administration have ruled out a Council Tax referendum. The reason they give is that the large cost of the referendum that would fall on Wirral Council (if you can remember the amount they quoted please leave a comment about what it was and who said it). This is despite the law (The Local Authority (Referendums Relating to Council Tax Increases) (Date of Referendum) (England) Order 2013) that states a Council Tax increase referendum would have to be held on the 22nd May 2014 (the same day as the joint European & local Council elections). I’m not sure if the estimated figure a councillor quoted last year for a Council tax increase referendum took into account the reduced cost of the referendum due to holding other elections on the same day (or whether the cost quoted assumed the referendum would be held separately to other elections in which case the estimate is too high).

Labour’s budget assumption therefore assumes that Council Tax will rise by 2% (without the need for a referendum) to lessen the need for further cuts they’d have to make if the rise was any lower or Council Tax was kept the same. The Labour administration have also ruled out accepting a Council Tax Freeze grant equivalent to a 1% rise if they agreed to keep Council Tax the same as last year.

However Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP has different plans and according to an article last week in the Guardian based on leaked Cabinet letters wants to reduce the threshold to 1.5% and refers to councils that rise Council Tax by only two percent as “democracy dodgers” and “believes they need to be punished to show the government is trying to control the cost of living”. Furthermore Pickles states “he wants to stop councils or police bodies being able to exempt some spending from the cap.”

This article in the Bristol Post before Christmas also quotes the Rt Hon Eric Pickles from a statement in relation to council tax increases “as being particularly open to representations suggesting that some lower threshold be applied to councils, given the strong need to protect taxpayers wherever possible from unreasonable increases”.

So what has this got to do with Parliamentary ping-pong? Well the Local Audit and Accountability Bill is heading to its next to the last stage (starting on 21st January) called “parliamentary ping-pong” before the last stage “Royal Assent” and it becomes law. Crucially the section on Council Tax referendum calculations (s.41) comes into force (see s.49) when the act receives Royal Assent and changes the formula of how a yearly Council Tax increase is arrived at.

In future once the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes an Act, the calculation of Council Tax rise includes not just Wirral Council’s share of the Council Tax bill, but also (if I’ve read the bill correctly and please leave if a comment if I’m wrong) the other levying bodies that form part of Council Tax bills too. This means the yearly increase in Council Tax requirements in the budgets of the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside would affect what the percentage increase would be.

It looks from the wording of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill (and a lot of recent regulations) that this will come into effect for the 2014/15 financial year. As the basis by which a Council Tax rise is calculated will change, £556,789 is my rough estimate of what changing the threshold from 2% to 1.5% will be as the true amount of extra cuts will depend on what the Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner’s and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s Council Tax requirements for 2014/15 are.

At Wirral Council’s Coordinating Committee meeting (held yesterday at the time of writing), in item 8 (policy update), councillors on the committee will have read in their papers on page 2, under Implications for the Local Audit and Accountability Bill “Budget Strategy considerations may also be impacted by the changes to the Council Tax threshold for triggering a referendum.”

Yet curiously not one of the councillors of the fifteen on the Coordinating Committee asked how much changing the Council Tax threshold for triggering a referendum would affect the budget strategy considerations or to my recollection anything at all about how a change to the Council Tax threshold would affect the 2014/15 Budget.

So is this £½ million of cuts at Wirral Council that councillors seem to be unaware of going to result in a further twelve-week consultation (or will the responses to the What Really Matters consultation be reused)? If any of these further cuts require ninety days consultation with the trade unions will this mean that they will only be realised as part-year savings in 2014/15?

There does seem to be one concession the Liberal Democrats have received though. Any regulations the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP decides to do with council tax increase referendums has to by law be also agreed with Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP first.

So what do you dear reader think? Will Cllr Phil Davies be saying of the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP something similar to the famous Laurel and Hardy quote “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”. With exquisite timing, Wirral Council’s Labour administration will have to agree the budget for 2014/15 around the end of February 2014 meaning these extra cuts will probably feature in the local election period in the lead up to polling day on the 22nd May.

Certainly this apparent lack of a plan B will have to be explained when the Improvement Board returns in March. As the Rt Hon Ed Balls MP (Labour’s Shadow Chancellor) said last October about Labour’s economic competence, “we are going to win based upon our experience, our track record, our credibility”.

Oh and if you think the projected underspend of £884,000 will mean a further £½ million of cuts won’t have to be made in 2014/15 you’d be wrong.

£250,000 of the underspend will probably be agreed tonight to go towards the clean up and repairs to infrastructure in New Brighton following the bad weather. A further £519,000 of the underspend has been earmarked for future restructuring costs leaving (at current estimates) only a projected underspend of £115,000 that can count towards an estimated a £½ million of cuts required if the Coalition government reduce the Council Tax increase referendum threshold to 1.5%.

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Responses

  1. Relentlessly hacked at by Central Government Tories.
    Relentlessly abused by Local Government Torylite…

    …I continue to fear for our children.

    • Well I didn’t think you’d be advising them to go to work for Wirral Council after your experiences there!

      Fear for them in what way, that there will be cuts to their education? That the level of political debate at Wirral Council will be whether schools can legally fund lollipop men (and ladies), or that the younger generation will grow up so jaded and cynical with local politics that they’ll decide not to vote?

  2. All those and more John. And a calculated decision by anybody not to vote can never be classed as “apathy”. Not when the reason is you don’t want to grant your personal mandate to crooks, because they’ve done absolutely nothing to earn it?

    The responsibility for this messed up society we live in lies with the filthy political pigs, local or central, who invite and CAUSE disinterest, then blame poor turn-outs on “the weather”, because they want their ££”House of Plenty” and free dinners at the trough to continue unimpeded.

    /rantover (for now…)

    • Well if you don’t want to vote for the candidate expected to win, you could always vote for the candidate expected to come second, thus reducing the majority of the candidate that wins and making them work harder while they’re in office. 🙂

      If in your opinion none of the candidates have done anything to earn it, you can always stand yourself, then that solves your voting problem as you can vote for yourself!

      Well as ever it’s more complicated than just the politicians. Their own political party (and others) are supposed to keep them in check during their period of office. So are their residents.

      The problem is that the ones in political parties that have ambitions to become politicians one day don’t keep their party’s politicians in check or rock the boat as they need a support base within their own party to become a politician, which can be put in jeopardy overnight if a politician takes a dislike to them for holding them to account and sees them as a threat.

      Remember politicians are usually more frightened of their own political parties than the people who voted for them (or the people they represent). 🙂

      Sadly once in office, some politicians make a habit of ignoring advice from their own party members and doing things their own way. Shortly before reselection they will promise if reselected they will change their ways and become a different person, but a leopard doesn’t change their spots!

      Course not all politicians are like this, some are genuinely nice people who go into politicians out of a sense of public service and civic duty. The problem is though that as the role of councillor is paid through allowances you have people doing it for a bit of extra cash, that didn’t really know what it entailed before they got elected or the career politicians that make a full time living out of politics.

      Get rid of basic allowances for being a councillor (but keep the expenses system) and you’d get a different type of person volunteering for the role. You’d also save the Wirral taxpayer over half a million a year in the process.

  3. Councillor Janette Williamson was one of those you refer to John – who apparently went into politics out of a deeply held sense of public service and civic duty – at least that was the rousing content of the impossible to avoid pre-election tweets, blurb and publicity.

    But I see now, she’s become a friend of soon to be mayor Councillor Steve Foulkes on Facebook. I did warn you on Twitter Janette… but look what came to pass….. you got safely elected, welcomed into the club, then blocked me.

    So…… I think it’s now safe to assume that FULFILLED political pledges are about as difficult to come by as stories about council scandal in The Wirral News i.e. they’re an endangered, if not extinct species….

    ….And I trust good old Janette will now be scrapping, gouging and elbowing people out of the way with the best of them, in the hope of a better stab at the constantly replenished trough of plenty.

    • I had a look for Cllr Steve Foulkes on Facebook, but just came across this fake profile and a fanpage that seems to have been automatically created from his Wikipedia entry.

      Nothing came up for Cllr Janette Williamson.

      So either I don’t move in the same Facebook circles you do, they have the privacy settings set to keep their profiles private, there’s some other explanation or it’s all just a scurrilous rumour. 🙂 Do you have a screenshot of them being friends on Facebook? It’s just all the social media profiles (remember Twitter’s foulkesworld) about Cllr Foulkes appear to be parodies rather than set up by the person himself.


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