The yearly misery
Every year around this time since the Tories took Downing Street in 2010, local authorities are forced into the miserable process of deciding which services get cut and which limp on into another year.
Do they shut libraries or close children’s centres? Do they fund homeless shelters or HIV screening programmes? Do they cut social care for disabled people or elderly residents?
The scale of the funding cuts imposed by Tory governments on councils around the country – especially Labour councils – beggars belief. In 2016, Liverpool had already faced cuts of 58% since 2010- and was facing a further cut of £98 million for the 2017/18 financial year.
Under May and Hammond, politically-motivated austerity ploughs relentlessly on. The Tories remain wedded to their commitment to entirely end central Government funding for local authorities by 2020.
Labour councillors face a stark choice: try to make the best of Tory cuts and then try desperately to turn residents’ anger toward the right target – or give up and allow complete collapse.
The situation is crying out for genuinely creative solutions that help the majority in hard-pressed areas and point the finger of blame where it rightly belongs – with the Tory government and its ideologically-driven vandalism of the fabric of our country on which we depend.
So Chris Williamson’s fresh thinking on the issue of council tax ought to be welcome.
Williamson and his team in Derby proposed a new approach in which council tax for the majority of the city’s residents would be protected from any council-tax rise – paid for by a bigger increase on properties with in the highest council-tax bands.
Williamson’s idea was not naive, nor ignorant of the fact that some people with little cash live in larger properties – he proposed a relief fund to be created from the additional overall income to help those people and those on low incomes generally. Those on high incomes who can best afford it would pay more – and would know where the real blame lies when they examine the reasons for hefty council tax rises.
The defamatory backlash
But that hasn’t prevented the Tories, seemingly rattled by the prospect of councils doing more than merely try to manage the decline of their town’s fabric and services, trying desperately to attack the idea – including at least one frankly libellous tweet on the topic by the official @Conservatives Twitter account.
The tweet claims that Williamson “want[s] to double YOUR council tax” – but of course, this is only true of a small number of residents in any given town. For ‘the many’, council tax would be frozen or even reduced.
Tories being dishonest to smear opponents – no surprise there, of course. The Tory party is bereft of creative ideas, as its manifesto last year made abundantly clear. But Williamson’s idea and the Tory response to it makes at least one thing even clearer.
What it exposes
Conservative politicians love to talk about ‘localism’ and to claim they are champions of empowering local people and authorities. But when those claims are tested, the Tories are quick to force local people to accept fracking – or to overrule the objections of parents and their council representatives to make them accept the academisation of their schools.
Tories love to devolve – but what they love to devolve is not power, it’s blame. Centrally-imposed cuts have to be enacted by local authorities – and only well-informed residents understand that the blame lies with the government, not their council.
Tory governments are cowards and bullies – striking at the vulnerable and then hiding behind others to avoid the consequences.
Williamson’s idea threatens their ability to hide from the anger their cuts creates, by shining a spotlight on the reasons for steep rises that will only hit those who are most able to pay – and most likely to vote Tory.
So the Establishment backlash was as inevitable as it is contrived.
Power to the people
Changes of the type proposed by Williamson would, of course, under current rules require a local referendum to approve them.
Some councils are understandably nervous about incurring the associated costs – but one-off costs with the aim of an ongoing benefit, both financially and politically.
This blog hopes councils will have the courage to run their referendums – and then to implement the changes. The people who rely on councils and councillors are depending on them to take bold action – and to expose and damage a government that has been forcing them to take an axe to their communities with impunity for far too long.
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