Wednesday, 13 April 2011
Sunday, 7 November 2010
We all have to pay our council tax, and we know we can be imprisoned for non-payment. The thought of appearing before the magistrates’ court is enough for the vast majority of us to pay up on time, even though we know so much of our hard earned cash is being wasted in town halls across the country.
A story emerged last week that both Hull City Council and East Riding Council have being issuing summonses for late payment as if they are going out of fashion. If you wish to pay your council tax each month by payment methods other than direct debit, East Riding Council insists you pay on the 1st of the month, and Hull insists you pay by the 7th of the month.
There are many reasons why some people do not choose the direct debit option. Some pensioners don’t trust it. Some people may have been declared bankrupt and cannot open a bank account. Many people are struggling to make ends meet in the current economic climate and cannot be certain to have the cash available at the set time. Surely, it would not be too much to expect councils to show some consideration? If a payment for November is paid in November, does it matter if it’s paid on the 7th of the month, or the 15th? Councils think differently and are making sure those who can least afford it get the nasty letters and demands.
I will give you an example. Someone who I know contacted me recently. He has just had to find over £600 to pay off his council tax bill in full for the rest of the year. His crime was being just two days late on his payments on three occasions in the past seven months. His business is not doing very well at the moment and life for him is a struggle. Like many people in Britain he is having to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’. He has never been more than a couple of days in arrears, but is Hull City Council bothered? Not in the least. No offers of help and certainly no notification of what will happen if you pay your bill late for a third month.
People who chose to pay by direct debit are also falling foul of the rules too. If a bank pays the council a day late because the due date falls on a weekend, that triggers off a nasty letter. Think about it. If your bank pays your direct debit a day late three times in a year, you will be told you have forfeited your right to pay in instalments, and will receive a demand for the full amount. If you don’t pay, you will be taken to court.
We are only seven months into the current financial year, and already summonses have been issued to more than 10% of households in Hull. At this rate, around 1 in 5 households will receive a summons by the end of March. If a private company treated people in this way councillors across the country would be up in arms. When councils treat people badly, councillors stay quiet.
Council tax bills have doubled over the last decade. All of us have witnessed councils wasting our cash in variety of different ways, and despite public opposition, councillors have not listened. They expect us to pick up the bill. If they hadn’t wasted so much money, council tax bills would be lower and those struggling to make ends meet would find it easier to pay.
If you want to know how your council treats people with financial difficulties, and how many summonses they have issued this year, contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I will send you a ready made Freedom of Information Request for you to send off.
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Below is an article I wrote for the Hull & East Riding Mail, published on Tuesday 26 October.
Last week, George Osborne announced details of the long-awaited comprehensive spending review. Over the next four years, the government will make over £80 billion of spending cuts, and although this is a huge amount of money, it is important to put these figures into perspective.
Today the government spent £120 million to pay off the interest on its debts. This equates to over £43 billion a year. In September, the government borrowed £16.2 billion, simply to pay its bills. There is no doubt cuts have to be made, and councils across the country will have to make savings of over 7% every year for the next four years.
Many will think this is impossible and are dreading the worst, but there are councils in the UK who have achieved significant savings in recent years, and importantly, frontline services have not been affected. Necessity is the mother of invention, and these cuts bring both challenges and opportunities.
The Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman, once said, “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there'd be a shortage of sand.” Or as Ronald Reagan once said, “Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets.” Government isn’t good at running things. It invariably makes a hash of anything it gets its hands on. Most capital projects come in way over time and way over budget, so my advice to council leaders is to ‘think out of the box.’
What they should do is come up with a list of services they currently provide and ask themselves if these services could be provided cheaper and more effectively by an outside organisation. For example, what do councils know about running arts centres? Not much, but arts charities do, and can run arts centres in a better and more cost effective way.
Windsor and Maidenhead Council recently installed smart meters in its buildings and the result was a 15% reduction in energy consumption. The London boroughs of Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Kensington & Chelsea have proposed to merge all their services, from schools and refuse collection to child protection, under the direction of a single chief executive. They estimate they can collectively save £100 million. Although there will be job losses, many workers will jump at the opportunity to retire early or take voluntary redundancy. Perhaps this is something Hull and East Riding councils should think about? Is there a reason why two neighbouring councils should have two chief executives, over a dozen directors, and management teams duplicating the work of each other? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to pool resources?
No doubt Carl Minns and Stephen Parnaby have their own ideas, but what they must do is preserve frontline services. I think they can do that, improve some services, and deliver a reduction in costs. Time will tell how successful they are.
I’m sure many readers will have ideas how their councils can save money. Council leaders are currently looking for ideas, before they start finalising their budgets. Why not contact your council and make your suggestions?
Friday, 8 October 2010
Friday, 1 October 2010
I’m starting to think about the old-fashioned traffic wardens in a nostalgic way. They were the scourge of every motorist, but – in Hull at least – they generally used some common sense before issuing a parking ticket.
Five years ago, Hull City Council took over the responsibility of parking enforcement and awarded a contract to a private company, Vinci Park. I have no idea if their parking wardens are on commission, but judging by their behaviour, they may as well be.
If your car is parked in a space, but a small portion is hanging over a yellow line, you’ll get a ticket. One lady couldn’t get into a parking space, so decided to abandon her attempt and move into a larger space that had just been vacated. The parking warden issued a ticket because she moved out of the space and should not have used another space until an hour had elapsed. One 89 year-old lady received a fine for displaying her disabled badge upside down.
The behaviour of the wardens has prompted businesses in the city centre to organise a campaign against them. Needless to say the TPA is right behind them. In the current economic climate it is hard to earn a living. The last thing you want is customers driven away by petty jobsworths who have nothing better to do than inflict pain on unsuspecting members of the public who are, at best, guilty of minor infringements.
Hull City Council has said it will listen to the concerns and take them into account when its contract with Vinci Park is up for renewal. This is where all of us can get involved. The cabinet member responsible for parking is Councillor Mike Ross (email@example.com). Write to him and tell him how dissatisfied you are with Vinci Park and how tired you are of being treated like a cash cow. If enough people bombard his inbox, he will be forced to take this into account when the new contract is awarded.
In the meantime, I am in the process of contacting people to see how this campaign can be accelerated and given the prominence it deserves. I will – as ever – keep you informed of the progress made.
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
If you want an example of how not to regenerate a town, Bridlington is a prime example. These are not just my words; speak to residents of the town, and they will tell you the same. Millions of pounds has been spent on controversial projects and despite local opposition, the appointed guardians of regeneration, the Bridlington Renaissance Partnership (BRP), has ploughed on regardless. One councillor told me many residents have contacted him with complaints, but because the BRP is not under the control of East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC) he was unable to put a stop to the excesses.
Yorkshire Forward – along with all Regional Development Agencies – is soon to be confined to the dustbin of history, therefore ERYC has now decided to fund the BRP itself. There isn’t going to be a review into how the regeneration will continue. The same people will be employed to do the same things – the very same things people have been complaining about. Here is a quote from Cllr Geoff Pickering who represents the Bridlington South Ward:
"The cabinet has approved a number of notable extensions to the lifetime of the Bridlington Renaissance Project, but without reassessment of the delivery needs and mechanisms.
"Despite the cabinet's continued support, the council's aims for the town's economy have not been realised. In any other environment, this would trigger a thorough investigation, not another extension.
"There has not even been a basic skills assessment of the posts involved to ensure we have the right job descriptions and right capacity to move forward, instead, an unquestioned extension of all contracts.
"This does not represent best practice and is not a financially responsible position. This report is authored by officers who have a vested interest in maintaining their jobs."
Cllr Pickering sums it up. If public money is going to be placed into the regeneration pot, there must be careful consideration of the needs and views of local people. In private business, aims and objectives would have to be met, otherwise you wouldn’t be in business for very long. Carrying on regardless – which appears to be the policy of ERYC – not only continues to waste public money, but is a ‘kick in the teeth’ for hard pressed taxpayers paying for it.
Senior ERYC councillors must take political control and do the job they were elected to do. They must no longer give the BRP a free hand. They must listen and act on the views of local councillors and residents. There needs to be a clear business case put forward before a penny more is spent, and those responsible for previous failures need to be told to look for alternative employment.
Put in place the right tax and regulatory regimes, work hand-in-hand with the private sector, and solutions will be found that will create jobs and prosperity. As for the grandiose nonsense no-one wants; confine it - just like Yorkshire Forward - to the dustbin of history.
Monday, 20 September 2010
The headline in the East Riding Mail this morning read: Staff Pension cutbacks ‘would save council £255,000 over five years’. It sounds good, but when you read the detail, you realise it’s still very much ‘business as usual’ at County Hall, in Beverley.
Many will remember Sue Lockwood, the former Corporate Resources Director of East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC). The TPA held two protests outside County Hall, protesting against a discretionary payment made to her pension fund of £364,205. She received this outrageous sum because she wanted to take early retirement. This was at a time when councillors were also saying the council could no longer afford to fund some community projects. Where charities lost out, senior council employees won.
ERYC is now proposing a change. As it stands, when employees wish to take early retirement their pensions can be enhanced by 5 years; as was the case with Ms Lockwood. Under new proposals, this enhancement will decrease to a maximum of 2 years, hence the headline in the East Riding Mail. By my calculations, instead of receiving £364K, Ms Lockwood would have received over £145K. Still a sizeable sum by anyone’s standards.
I made my views very clear in the press a couple of weeks ago. Council employees already receive generous, taxpayer funded pensions. If you work for 30 years, you should receive a pension based on 30 years service; not 35 or 32 years. This should be the message coming out of County Hall. Instead Cllr Cross, chairman of the review panel, said these proposals were fair to taxpayers and staff. No, Cllr Cross, they are generous to staff and unfair to taxpayers.
These proposals have yet to be discussed by the cabinet and full council. I will be writing to all cabinet members, and making the TPA’s case that council employees should not receive any enhancements in their pensions. If that doesn’t work, I can feel another protest coming on. Watch this space.