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Local democracy should mean local decision making

One of the delights of Simon Jenkins column in the Guardian is that it is eclectic, surprising and follows no discernible agenda. Today, he is arguing for councils to freed from central control over their budgets.

I agree. For too many years governments, Labour, Conservative, and now coalition brings in the Lib Dems, have increased  the proportion of local spending funded from the centre. The loser has been local decision making and democracy.

So, as Jenkins, says, “uncap its council tax and let local democracy take the strain”. He continues:

A core feature of modern British government is that those who grab power to win credit in good times will win blame in bad ones. What is odd is that Cameron and his colleagues refuse to accept the converse. If they shed responsibility, they can also shed blame. All politicians are localists in opposition but centralists in power. Cameron is no exception.

A cap is technically a Government ruling that that council tax should rise by by no more than a given percentage. For 2011-12 there is no cap, but a “voluntary” scheme.

It is a more powerful, insidious system. Some might call it a bribe, but it looks more like a criminal gang enforcer saying: “Give me what I want or your business will suffer.”

Basically, the government has said that part of the grant settlement  is dependent of freezing council tax.

For Suffolk, this effectively means that that the possibility of a democratic decision to to save county council run libraries or country parks by raising taxes is impossible.

£7.2 million is at stake. That is not far off the current total library budge of £9 million.

But there is one part of local government system which is not capped or restricted any “voluntary” agreement — parish and town councils (they are exactly the same in their powers. Town councils were created during local government amalgamations which wiped-out rural and urban districts councils.)

Suffolk county council is actively promoting the idea that these very local councils should take over the running of libraries and open spaces. In other words, they are promoting the the transfer of taxes to bodies which are not restricted in their tax raising powers.

This may seem strange to city-dwellers who have probably only heard of parish councils as a quaint survival in The Archers.

But in some places the parish precept is already a substantial part of the council tax. In Stowmarket, Suffolk, the tax on a band-D house this year for the town council is £112.23. The Mid Suffolk District Council takes £151.18 — not a lot more.

In Stowupland, which is something like a suburb (people there will hate me for saying this) of Stowmarket, the parish tax is £43.39 but residents are likely to benefit from the higher taxes at the bottom of the hill. It is a system of very local government which is not fit for the role that is now being forced on it.

The transfer of taxation to parish councils has been going on for some time. Debenham, where I live, took over the public loos from Mid Suffolk several years ago.

Unlike district and county councils, parish councils get no share of the business rate, so everything they spend falls on private households.

Later: Just seen (East Angian Daily Times)  that Felixstowe town council is increasing its precept putting council tax up by £4.31 a year.

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