Cut of the day 8: No council tax revaluation

Not quite a cut in the strictest sense of the word. Eric Pickles’s cancelling of plans for council tax revaluation in England, means increases in council tax that would have resulted from the revaluation will not now occur.

Here’s what Eric Pickles said in his announcement,

“We are today confirming that there will be no council tax revaluation which could have pushed up taxes on people’s homes.”

The BBC reports in on the change HERE, and ConservativeHome have more details on this new policy, and why it’s to be applauded, not least as government inspectors will not now be compiling a database of everything to do with our homes.

Cut of the day 5: Audit Commission abolished

Wowee! is my reaction. The Audit Commission is to be abolished.

This is a bigee, as they say. The Audit Commission, the bain of many a local Council, is a £200 million a year organisation. Eric Pickles, you’re doing what was needed but is generally put in the ‘too hard to do’ category. The Commission has grown and grown, and is now hugely costly. It’s right to scrap it.

The Audit Commission probably doesn’t come onto most people’s radar. But it does local councils. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll explain just one reason why this is a great move by Eric.

A while back at one of the scrutiny meetings I attended, we had representatives from our financial auditors – KPMG – and the Audit Commission. They’d both presented reports on the Council, and so I quizzed ’em a bit. I’m a curious soul.

I’m also on our Performance Indicator Working Group, where we look at the how the council is performing on a large number of key things, which the council monitors rigorously.

So, I asked the Audit Commission chap what proportion of our performance statistics that they used to compile their report. He said around 40%. So, you have it. We pay our taxes to have well-paid people come along and tell us what we already know, only they do it in a very superior manner.

Now, I’m sure that Eric Pickles department will take ‘in-house’ some of the things that the Audit Commission does. But, he’s right to rely on ‘armchair auditors’. It’ll strengthen the role of councillors, to know that it’s down to us to understand what’s going on, and to be able to respond to residents.

‘Armchair Auditors’ strike lucky

Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Secretary, coined the phrase ‘armchair auditors’ to describe the actions of the public when reviewing all of his department’s expenditure in the past year.

Some people have got at the data with all the rapidity of a fox in a chicken coup.

  • Guido has spotted a bill of £7,500 from the Smith Institute, Gordon Brown’s dodgy think tank. He wonders if other government departments have similar bills? Good question Guido.
  • The TaxPayers’ Alliance have had a rolling blog all day as they trawl through the figures. They’ve totalled up the bills from SOLACE  – (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers) the representative body for senior strategic managers working in the public sector, which come to £104,000. Hmmm. This is like a senior staff union, however you dress it up.
  • The Daily Mail is indignant, well, what do you expect, and the Daily Telegraph picks out the ‘gory’ stuff too.
  • This news doesn’t figure among the lead stories on the BBC website, again, what do you expect. Their little piece HERE is buried in the politics page. Sorry Beeb, this is a BIG topic. Maybe they’re afraid transparency will be catching.

Praise deserved to the department that first in publishes their expenditure. Good job Eric.

Transparency in local government expenditure

That man Eric Pickles is at it again. There’s a management-speak phrase about “driving through change”, which means driving through the roadblocks to change.

For me Eric is in the driver’s seat and has his foot on the accelerator pedal flat to the floor. Today he has published all spending over £500 for his government department, Communities and Local Government. You can see HERE.

Eric wants all local councils to publish all their expenditure over £500, and importantly to publish it online. He lists 28 councils that have done this.

Surrey Heath isn’t in this list. But, Surrey County Council is, as is neighbouring council Spelthorne. I’ve taken a quick look at some of the councils in the list, and I’m impressed by Spelthorne’s easy to use model.

There’s also an interesting website, Open Data Scorecard, from OpenlyLocal.com, a place to access data about the workings of your local council. They are campaigning for any data to be published in a way that lets the public become “armchair auditors”, to use Eric Pickles phrase.

I’m going to check this all out, and see if I can help Surrey Heath choose the best model. You can help me, by letting me know which Council’s approach you prefer.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention my earlier blog on this topic, which has some useful links

Cut of the day 3: Use of lobbyists stopped

I’m a bit late with this one, as it was announced last week by Eric Pickles, Secretary for Communities and Local Government.

Eric wants to stop Local Government and Quango’s from using lobbyists. Claiming it’s wasteful for them to hire lobbyists to lobby government for more money or their pet project. In Eric Pickles’ article in the Guardian newspaper on the subject, he begins,

“Many councils and quangos hire public affairs firms using taxpayers’ money to lobby government for even more money: it sounds like something that shouldn’t be allowed, but it is happening with increasing frequency.”

There’s no need for this expenditure, when that’s the job of local councillors and the marketing teams in local government to press their case. I can imagine an odd exception or two, but Eric’s argument is sound. It’ll force councils to hone their own skills, and not rely on expensive outside help.

In his Guardian article, Eric provides some examples that he considered wasteful expenditure, and one is about us in Surrey. He says,

“… when Surrey police authorities tried to raise their council tax precept by over 7%, they hired top dogs Weber Shandwick, using public money to try to oppose a cap.”

Eric is leading from the front here, by informing his Arms Length Bodies [Quango’s to you and me], all nine of them, to cancel their contracts with lobbyists. If you’re interested in what’s been cancelled, take a look at the list at the bottom of his Department’s press release.

Pickles’ thoughts on improving recycling

Might not be the read to excite you, but Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary writes in the Guardian about the Government’s thoughts on improving recycling rates.

Read it here – We’ll boost recycling with a gentle nudge. It’s about a reward scheme that converts points into prizes – now where have I heard that before. Oh, yes Bruce Forsyth.

Garden grabbing banished

Yup, the Department of Communities and Local Government has made yet another announcement. The new team, under Eric Pickles, has begun work impressively. They really are giving more power to local authorities. Good news indeed.

Today Communities Minister, Greg Clark MP, announced that Councils in England are to get greater powers to stop developers building homes on gardens. This issue isn’t a big problem for Surrey Heath, but is for neighbouring boroughs of Hart and Guildford. The extra powers to retain the character of areas with houses with large gardens is most welcome.

The BBC reports that gardens, in the brownfield planning category used for ex-factory land, are to be reclassified to try and stop a practice known as “garden-grabbing”.

Changes in local government: transparency revolution

I’ll make this my last post, for a while, on the changes to local government introduced by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP.

Eric’s announcement today that he is urging all councils to publish details of all spending over £500 in full and online is a revolution in local government transparency. Report by BBC HERE, and in the Daily Telegraph too. In typically forthright fashion, Eric says that,

“The public should be able to see where their money goes and what it delivers. The swift and simple changes we are calling for today will unleash an army of armchair auditors and quite rightly make those charged with doling out the pennies stop and think twice about whether they are getting value for money.”

There’s nothing like openness to uncover waste and duplication. It’s just a shame that Eric is only urging councils to become more transparent. What it does do however, is offer the opportunity for councils to show how open they are, without the need for regulation to force them to do it.

Nearby Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council is quoted in Eric Pickles’ press notice as an example of good practice. Here’s their web page on transparency. Impressive stuff. Worth noting that Windsor and Maidenhead is a unitary council and therefore responsible for more services than Surrey Heath. Refer to my previous blog post to read about how unitary councils differ from Surrey Heath.

Changes in local government: New Unitaries abolished

This post, the third of the series on changes to local government introduced with surprising rapidity by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP, is about the abolition of proposed new unitary councils in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Devon.

In the two-tier local authority model, of a District Council and a County Council, share responsibilities. Education, consumer protection, libraries, and transport is managed  on a County basis, with Districts looking after tax collection, waste collection, and planning. While there is occasional friction between the two, the democratic mandate is strong, decision-making is closer to the community with this model.

A Unitary Authority in England is a single tier that does everything. When a County Council becomes a unitary authority it claims to be more efficient by removing duplication. But this is at the loss of the vital democratic mandate. They become too big and impersonal.

Enough of this. There’s plenty of accessible information on the relative merits of both forms of local government for you to read. Professors Michael Chisholm and Steve Leach excellent definitive book on Labour’s imposition of unitary councils – ‘Botched Business: The damaging process of reorganising local government 2006-2008′, comprehensively rubbished the system. The preamble to the book says, 

The Government’s actions amounted to political deception, creating a cascade of misrepresentations and dishonesties. Government trumpets the virtues of transparency, accountability and public involvement but its actions in this reorganisation flouted its own rhetoric. The authors hold a mirror to public life, and the image is not pretty. The corrosive effect of political deception damages the probity of public affairs in England.”

Why is this important to us in Surrey Heath? A while back, before I became a councillor, Surrey County Council was hoping to become a unitary authority.

Changes in local government: regional strategies abolished

In the second post on what Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles MP, has been up to, this action is of major significance.

The previous government established a level of unelected regional quango’s that set strategies at a regional level, such as housing policy for the South East. In a letter to Leaders of local councils, Eric Pickles said,

“I am writing to you today [27th May] to highlight our committment in the coalition agreements where we very clearly set out our intention to rapidly abolish Regional Strategies and return decision making powers on housing and planning to local councils. Consequently, decisions on housing supply [including the provision of travellers sites] will rest with Local Planning Authorities without the framework of regional numbers and plans.”

This means that the views of our communities and villages will carry more weight than the unelected members of the regional quango’s. However in Surrey Heath we’re still affected by the requirements of the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area.

This is excellent news. I look forward to seeing how this new policy direction develops.