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English counties and cities should be demanding devolution too

As a rhetorical flourish the unfavourable comparison of Scotland’s tax raising powers with those of an English parish council, is powerful. It is used by Simon Jenkins in his column in today’s Guardian on the increasing pressure for greater devolution for the Celtic countries.

Whether it really stands up examination I am not sure, but it certainly true that parish councils have more freedom in raising taxes than English, county, district and unitary councils.

The effective ban on English authorities increasing council tax is now to be extended for a second year. For reasons that have never been explained, parish and town councils are exempt from the ban.

While government ministers bang on about frozen council tax bills, many people in small towns and rural areas know that theirs have risen. The increases are small and people have generally accepted them.

Would people accept increases in county or district council taxes to protect services they value? To some extent, I think they would.

Here in Debenham we took over the public toilets from Mid Suffolk District Council a few years ago rather than let them be closed in an earlier round of cost-cutting.

This year it was suggested the toilets should close because of the likely need to use parish council money to preserve other services like the library and the youth club. The overwhelming response was to keep the toilets open. That did not mean that people were not prepared to dig into their pockets for the library or youth club.

I can think of reasons why we should not. Parish councils do not get any share of the business rate nor, in general, do smaller parishes around large villages and small towns, make similar contributions.

But in the end people can make decisions about there things. It is a value judgement.

So we have a situation where the top and second tiers of local government, elected by the people, are not trusted by central government. This is the same central government that has made localism a central part of its policy.

The proportion of local government spending raised by local taxation has declined alarmingly over the years, to the extend that county and district councils often look like mere agents of Whitehall. Follow the money and this is what you find.

Simon Jenkins in his column says: “There is a clear head of steam behind Salmond’s [Scotland’s First Minister] demands, which are spreading across the so-called Celtic fringe.”

Similar demands for greater local autonomy should also be spreading across England. At the moment our county councils look like vassals doing the really nasty bits of the government’s deficit reduction plan.

If Parish council’s can be trusted to set council tax, so should county and district councils.

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