Recent Local Government Articles

Could the a Green Progressive Council Tax idea work?

by Guest     August 18, 2013 at 9:59 am

by Mike Shaughnessy

An idea in the form of a Progressive Council Tax (PCT), from the Brighton and Hove Green party, is creating a buzz around the whole Green party. It may soon become a central policy tool for Greens in local government.

To be clear, Green party national policy is for the introduction of a Land Value Tax for raising local revenue. But we also need a credible strategy at local government level where we can and do (in Brighton and Hove) run local authorities, which is more than just implementing cuts as directed by national government, as we are at the moment.

So, how does it work? First a referendum needs to be held and won in a local authority area on raising Council Tax by more than 2%, in fact much more than 2%, with the higher the increase, the less the majority will pay.

Then residents are required to apply for a reduction in the charge, which would be means tested, with around 80% of residents receiving a reduction, meaning most would actually pay less than now. For the other 20% who do not qualify for a reduction there will be steep increase in Council Tax.

This is all based on residents’ income and ability to pay, which is perfectly fair and counter to the policies of the ConDem government. Vulnerable groups will get special help to ensure they pay only the correct amount.

I’m told that this does not require any change to the law nationally, so if voters can be convinced that this a fairer way to fund local services, and for most it will cost less, then there is nothing to stop a local council introducing this approach.

PCT has a number of advantages, I think. It is fairer, because those who can afford to pay more will do so, leaving those on more modest means either unaffected or better off. It also has the potential to reduce some of the cuts to services that are required by national government reducing direct grants to local authorities, and so at least some services and jobs are retained.

Then of course there is the politics. Would Labour run councils for example, follow suit and introduce the scheme themselves? If they saw it working in Brighton and Hove, they might consider it, but if not then the Green party will have staked out an alternative approach, which to use sales parlance, would be our ‘Unique Selling Point’, offering the voters a true choice in how local services are funded.

There is probably a huge amount of detail to work through on this idea, in practically introducing PCT, but I’m sure that can be achieved, and in principle it can be justified in terms of fairness. We need to be bold as a party in these testing times. PCT’s time has surely come.

Mike blogs more regularly at Haringey Green Party Blog

The Green Party needs to talk about the mess in Brighton

by Guest     June 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm

by Josiah Mortimer

This Friday, Green Party members across the country will face an immense dilemma – the choice between supporting our own minority Green council or hundreds of workers going on strike for a week against proposed pay reductions.

Some of the workrs could lose up to £4000 a year. That’s a choice most Greens would a few years ago have never thought they’d face. In the midst of massive local authority cuts, the Greens are in office but seemingly not in power.

Many local parties and individuals – including the local Brighton & Hove Green Party, Caroline Lucas (who has pledged to join the picket lines), and university branches such as my own – have spoken out against the bin worker pay cuts.

It has thus-far been a shambolic dispute where a noble attempt to equalise pay between male and female staff has turned into idiotic comparisons to the winter of discontent, accusations of potential strike breaking, and outsourcing the pay proposal decision altogether in order for Greens to claim ‘it wasn’t our decision’. Yet the council leader, Jason Kitcat, seems determined not to budge.

Serious internal discussion about this sorry state of affairs has sadly been minimal at best, stifled at worst. The party is coming under attack over this from all other sections of the left, and Labour will exploit this to its fullest unless the Green group in Brighton change tack and handle the situation properly. If Greens don’t tackle the issue head on, other parties will do so.

Neither is it good enough to say, as some have, that since the Greens are a federal party ‘it’s up to Brighton’. Brighton Greens – both the local branch and our only MP – have spoken clearly on this issue. It’s now up to the rest of the party nationally to back them up in this. Brighton is, bar a sizeable number of honourable exceptions in the likes of Alex Phillips and others, a rogue council, refusing to cede to the wishes of its local party, its constituents, and (from what I gather) the rest of the party nationally.

Disappointingly, the Green Party Executive (GPEX) and leader Natalie Bennett have appeared quiet on the issue.

Worthy though bringing in a Living Wage, leading the ‘no evictions’ fight over the bedroom tax, and attempting to equalise pay between male and female workers is, a Green council should never cut the pay of some of the least well off. That should be a given, particularly after enshrining social justice into the party’s Core Values last conference. As a party which has the strongest record on workers’ rights in terms of policy, strike busting should never have even been rumoured, let alone a potential possibility.

There are some hopeful signs however. Leading figures in Brighton & Hove Greens have at last made public statements about the strike action, though still seemingly refusing to back down over the pay proposals. The GMB has agreed to re-enter negotiations. And the candidate for the Hanover & Elm Grove by-election, David Gibson, is a solid trade unionist who opposes the measures to equalise pay down instead of up.

There needs to be a serious discussion about the possibility of setting ‘needs budgets’, and if not, discussing whether we should be in office at all if we are forced to act as a mere smoke-screen for Tory-Lib Dem cuts.

At what point does the party start to consider that to stay in office and continue to implement cuts would be to breach fundamental principles? As the Green Party conference in Brighton approaches, it’s time to get backtracking on the proposed pay cuts, and time to start talking.

Josiah Mortimer is a Green Party activist and student based in York.

Evidence shows Labour’s decision to means-test WFA will hit poorer pensioners too

by Paul Cotterill     June 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Sunny says that a key argument being deployed in favour of keeping universal winter fuel allowance, by the likes of Peter Hain is specious:

There is no evidence that offering universal pensioner benefits preserves support for universal benefits more broadly. Basically, people support benefits they get, but not other types of benefits such as for the unemployed or low paid.

Indeed, hurrah for evidence-based policy.

Here’s more evidence, from HMRC’s 2010-11 review of the take up of Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit ad Working Tax Credit:

The central estimate of the Child Benefit take-up rate in 2010-11 is 96 per cent.
The central estimate of the Child Tax Credit caseload take-up rate in 2010-11 is 83 per cent.
The central estimate of the Working Tax Credit caseload take-up rate in 2010-11 is 64 per cent.

That is, take up be families who are eligible for benefits are much lower when they are mean tested, and even lower when that means testing becomes complex.

Then there’s Free School Meals

More than a quarter of children entitled to free school meals take a packed lunch instead because they fear being stigmatised, according to a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research.

The idea, then, that a means testing policy for winter fuel targeted at the richest pensioners will end up just affecting the richest pensioners is fanciful; the much greater effect will be on pensioners who, for whatever reason or set of reasons, don’t feel able to submit themselves to the means-testing process.

It is also reasonable to conjecture that there will be a negative correlation between vulnerability/poverty and take up.

Of course, in a more socially just we wouldn’t need winter fuel allowances at all, because fuel would be affordable to the poorest, but given where we are it is highly irresponsible for Labour to be signing up to policy which may result directly in cold, dead pensioners.

But cold, dead pensioners aside, the continuing distance in the Labour party between policymaking and the reality of policy implementation – of the type which brought us the Lord Freud Welfare to Work Narnia in 2008 – continues to be a disappointment.

This was the kind of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen after the Refounding Labour process, because policy was supposed to become grounded in the experience of those implementing that policy and those living with its consequences.

Squaring the circle: behind the pay controversy at Brighton council

by Guest     May 9, 2013 at 2:30 pm

by Jason Kitcat

My colleagues and I on Brighton and Hove Council have led this country’s first Green local authority since May 2011, although as a minority administration we can (and do) get over-ruled by Labour and the Tories when they choose to work together.

There’s much we’ve done over the last two years which has been widely welcomed including introducing the Living Wage, building more affordable homes, protecting third sector funding, becoming the world’s first One Planet City and progressing a City Deal, but it’s fair to say that staff pay has been the most controversial issue we have had to deal with.

We inherited a deeply flawed and muddled pay and allowances structure from previous administrations, and indeed from predecessor defunct local authorities.

The lowest paid were not getting a living wage and the work on resolving single status for employee take-home pay (regardless of gender) was incomplete.

The Tory-Lib Dem cuts to local government have also hit us hard: in fact, they are the second steepest faced by any council of our type. Furthermore, we cannot raise Council Tax beyond a level Labour or the Tories would support. Although senior management pay is down to its lowest level for over ten years, the budget is exceptionally tight.

So we’re consulting on a proposal that will bring in fair pay and allowances for all who work for the council.

Building on the Living Wage we’ve already introduced for the lowest paid, we now are seeking to complete the final step of ensuring single status for all council employees.

It is very clear that this is not about budget savings and not about ‘austerity’. In fact, based on the offer under consultation, the pay bill is likely to go up slightly. Which other Council in the country can claim that?

What is the offer then? The offer includes three key aspects:

1) A new fair and simple set of allowances which is easy to understand and helps the council meet the needs of our citizens.With these new allowances 90% of staff will see very little or no change at all in their take home pay. Of those that do, the majority will actually see an increase and a minority will see some detriment. Most of those seeing detriment will, it is estimated, lose less than £25 per week. I recognise even that is a lot to some people, but not the headline figures being used by some individuals.

2) Anyone who is unfortunately suffering detriment will be generously compensated for that loss with a lump sump payment. For example someone losing between £1,001 and £1,250 a year is proposed to receive £3,550 in one-off compensation.

3) We are keen to provide new opportunities for staff. We hope that, if agreed at a future committee, changes like Bank Holiday working can increase opportunities for waste and recycling staff whilst improving services to the city by eliminating changing collection days every time there is a Bank Holiday.

Some staff will regrettably see allowances reduced, but we can see no legal and affordable way merely to increase everyone’s pay up to those levels – and we therefore propose a lump sum to compensate those staff, worth very roughly about three years’ worth of any reduction.

We have to resolve these allowances now. To do so without any detriment to any member of staff would sadly be totally unaffordable, even with Council Tax rises that would certainly not be supported by Labour and Conservative councillors.

I know this process has been controversial and could have been communicated better. Some colleagues locally have concerns about it, to say the least.

I would therefore welcome suggestions from them, as well as from staff and the unions, on how to improve these proposals in any way which is legal, fair and can be afforded within the tight budget limits effectively set by the government as well as our Labour and Tory opposition.

For more on the proposals, see Jason’s blog here.
Jason Kitcat is a Green City Councillor. He is writing in his capacity as Convenor of the Green Group of councillors on Brighton & Hove City Council.

April will see the start of London’s #socialcleansing – we need to expose these changes

by Darren Johnson AM     March 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm

On the 1st April the Government will introduce a raft of changes to our welfare system, arguably the largest since the 1940s. Despite all the press coverage of the bedroom tax, and endless stories about scroungers on the make or families stuck in B&Bs, the public are still in the dark about the full range of changes coming in and the impacts they will have.

The housing benefit caps are already making parts of inner London a no-go zone for people on low incomes, a point the New Policy Institute backed up my warning on. The 1st of April changes, combined with extension of the right to buy discounts, will accelerate this process.

Councils are struggling to understand how so many overlapping changes will work, and people who receive help with childcare or housing costs are struggling to understand how they will be affected.

These changes have been brought in on the back of a distorted public debate. Other politicians and most of the media have paid a lot of attention to the cost of welfare, extreme cases of fraud or laziness, and what they believe to be a ‘culture’ of milking the system.

People have been led to believe that the welfare system has supported four million people who have never bothered to work, but most of those four million are students, people unable to work due to disability or people looking after their family.

Last year a study found that a significant number of people think more than half of benefit claims are fraudulent, when the actual rate is only 1%.

So I am going to spend ten days leading up to the 1st April trying to shine some light on the state of the welfare system in London and how these changes will affect our city.

As a London Assembly Member, I will be focussing on the impacts in London, and the role the Mayor of London has played in supporting the welfare cuts.

I’ll expose how little we actually know about the impacts of the changes, the role of the Mayor of London has played since his famous ‘Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing’ remark, the myths the Government and Mayor have both put about to justify the changes, and finally a different approach to welfare that the Mayor could push for.

I’ll also be tweeting about this every day. I hope that others will join me, using the hashtag #socialcleansing on social networks to shine a light on similar stories from around London and the rest of the country.

Why are we tough on people in poverty but not its causes?

by Guest     February 6, 2013 at 10:45 am

by Gary Rae

Some journalists still use shorthand. It’s really handy. Some politicians use shorthand. It’s really dangerous.Language, as a tool, is never neutral. It’s used and exploited by me, by you, by journalists and by politicians. A tool can easily become a weapon and here lies the greatest danger; not just in the characterisation of people living with poverty, but in their demonization.

Intentionally or not, we are doing what Professor Ruth Lister calls ‘Othering’ The Poor: making them into ‘convenient strangers’, subject to ridicule, subject to reform, subject to ignorance.

In the current debate on welfare reform, people in poverty are casually labelled as economic burdens, or even bereft of morals. Popular polls, supposedly proving public support for cuts, are often cited by politicians and journalists as justification for reducing the welfare budget during “tough times”. Some of this commentary is contaminated with a hint of wrong-doing.

Lest readers see this blog as the ramblings of a soft liberal-type: waste and fraud is wrong and those who allow waste and commit crimes should be held to account. That said, according to the Department for Work & Pensions’ own figures, last year we overpaid 0.7% of the welfare budget due to fraud.

Compare that with an estimated £70 billion lost through tax evasion. The entire out-of-work benefits bill is 3% of our gross domestic product.

So let’s keep calm, provide the evidence and tell the story of those ‘hard-working families’ (thought I’d borrow that phrase from the Politicians’ Book of Clichés) struggling with their daily lives.

At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we’ve taken a closer look at the people behind the percentages. Here’s a glimpse at their stories, part of our work on developing an anti-poverty strategy.

Seventy years on from the Beveridge Report, little appears to have changed in how we describe some of our fellow citizens – a theme to be developed by my boss, Julia Unwin, in her Toynbee Hall lecture later this month.

You’re familiar with the words “don’t be a shirker, best be a worker”. We all love a striver, never be a skiver. Cartoon clichés can reinforce Party political loyalties and help meet deadlines, more easily than carefully crafted, well-researched articles and broadcasts – to be clear, there are plenty of those around as well.

In her blog, my colleague Abigail Scott Paul talked about the risk of broadcasters’ in particular, resorting to lazy stereotypes of ‘problem families’ on ‘sink estates’. The inescapable conclusion being, these people are ‘A Problem to Society’.

Beware the shorthand, because the facts are often lost in translation and manipulation. As a Mr T. Blair nearly said, I’m not one for soundbites or quote-grabs, but it could appear, through the language we use, that we’re being tough on those in poverty and not looking closely enough at its causes. 

Gary Rae is Senior Media Relations Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

A Land Value Tax: an idea whose time has come

by Guest     December 9, 2012 at 11:01 am

by Jack Chadwick

A tax on land – “the original source of all wealth” – would have a lot going for it; equally lauded by denizens of the Left and the Right. David Lloyd George, Keir Hardie, and even Winston Churchill numbered among the early advocates for land value taxation.

Finding justification for the idea is incredibly simple – there are both ethical and economic arguments for its implementation, complimented by a mutual underpinning in both libertarian and socialist ideologies.

But, for starters, what is ‘land value’? In short: socially-created wealth. All land everywhere has a value determined by the level of economic demand for its attributes; a piece of ground conveniently located in the midst of an oil field is worth more than a plot found in the desolate isolation of some barren waste, because the resource of oil is quite sought after.

Less extreme examples of the same can be found in the familiar confines of the UK economy; land prices are different from place to place, with spaces in some areas being more desirable due to the basic features of their location.

Monetising this abstract concept is quite straightforward – the land’s value can be estimated by calculating its rental price over a certain period of time – this ‘ground rent’ is what proponents of LVT suggest we tax.

Why an LVT then? Well, as said, land value is socially-created wealth. It’s the product of the community, of collective endeavour, and thus rightfully belongs to the community. Under the present system, this wealth is instantly deposited into private pockets – a phenomenon the political economist Henry George blamed for the economic inequality found in societies like our own.

The principal reason for having an LVT is that landowners don’t actually contribute to the value of the land they own, and yet can profit greatly from it. Whilst the owner may increase the value of the property on their land through construction and suchlike, they don’t in any way contribute to the base value of the land occupied by their buildings. As stated, this value mostly comes from the endeavours of the community: infrastructure is provided, utilities are supplied, and the existence of all sorts of services (both public and private) render the land far more valuable than it would be were all these things to cease existing.

Natural resources like oil and minerals also account for a lot of land value, and some would argue that ownership of these resources is a legitimate means of accruing wealth. However, as George argued in his pamphlet ‘Progress and Poverty’, “The smallest infant born in the most squalid room of the most miserable tenement acquires, at the moment of birth, a right to land equal to millionaires. And that child is robbed if that right is denied.”

While the argument for land value taxation can easily get clogged-up with lofty philosophising, it’s also important to take notice of the practical positives it would bring. As Telegraph journalist Jeremy Warner acknowledged, LVT “does not discourage any socially desirable form of wealth creation” in the same way that taxes on income and jobs do. “The incentive to buy, develop, or use land would not change. Economic activity that was previously worthwhile remains worthwhile” states the Mirrlees Review (the IFS’ grand tax tome).

LVT revenue could then fund meaningful reductions in economically harmful taxes like national insurance contributions and VAT, or plug the gap in our public finances – or both!

At the risk of making LVT sound too good to be true, advocates for the tax also point to its likely effects in other areas of policy. It would disincentivise urban sprawl by ensuring that all sites were used efficiently – landlords would no longer be able to profit from lethargically sitting on land without developing it. The private sector housing crisis would resolve itself. Likewise, it would end sterile speculation in the housing market, the same bubble that amplified the 2008 financial crisis to such a shocking extent.

Panaceas don’t come along often; if there is one for the current problems facing us all, then land value taxation is very likely it.

Jack Chadwick is a member of the Labour Party, and, by extension, the Labour Land Campaign.

How the media’s lack of interest helped independent candidates in PCC elections

by Guest     November 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

by Giselle Green

I’m certainly not defending David Cameron’s apparent belief that it is the media’s job to step in when the government has so monumentally failed to publicise them. But if the media sets such a downbeat tone on the PCC elections, it’s not surprising that it rubs off on voters.

I must declare a personal interest here. Following my role as Siobhan Benita’s Head of Media in her London mayoral campaign, I became loosely involved in the campaign of the ultimately successful independent candidate in Kent, Ann Barnes.

I wrote to many national journalists and broadcasters, telling them about her excellent prospects, hoping this might prompt them to use her as part of their national coverage and spark debate on, for example, which independent candidates might have a chance of getting elected or on why so few women were standing.

Nothing doing, other than a couple of lines in the Guardian’s Media Monkey. Interestingly, Ann’s campaign team felt she did receive decent (and fair) news coverage from the local media.

What is clear though is that the national media totally failed to predict the big story of the PCC elections: TWELVE independent candidates being elected, compared to Labour’s 13 and the Tories’ 16.

Paradoxically, the success of independents is related to both the low turnout and the lack of information. Yes, voter apathy and ignorance (whether due to government incompetence, patchy media coverage or November gloom) are valid explanations for the embarrassingly low turnout.

But I think another major reason is that for a public which is so used to voting tribally, this election posed a real problem. Most people instinctively felt it was wrong to have a party political police commissioner.

So where could they turn? With no information and little interest, they just didn’t bother to vote at all. Or spoiled their ballot paper, scrawling as one Sheffield voter did: “no independent therefore none of the above”.

The minority who did vote had done their homework and actively sought out information, leading huge numbers to plump for serious, credible independents, the majority of whom have relevant policing experience as ex-police officers or ex-police authority chairs.

People who had been won over by independent candidates were also more committed and motivated to get out and vote for them, compared with lethargic party political voters.

So what was billed as a bad day for democracy, with turnout at an all time low, may ironically have turned out to be a great day for democracy, with the most appropriate people being elected and voters learning how to put a cross next to the word “independent”.

This pathetic PCC election should become a ghost that haunts the Tories

by Guest     November 16, 2012 at 5:58 pm

by Karl Davis

The chaotic and rambling drumbeat of the Tory march has been laid bare for the questioning ears of the world once more, as the Home Secretary, Theresa May MP denied that the incoming Police & Crime Commissioners (PCC) would lack a democratic mandate, telling the BBC

“I never set a turnout threshold for any election, and I’m not going to do it now.”

This refreshingly pure belief in the democratic will of electoral participants flies in the face of the growing band of right wing chicken hawks within Ms May’s party, who have been urging the Prime Minister to demand that votes for industrial action with a turnout of less than 50% be deemed unlawful.

The PCCs are largely unwanted by taxpayers. I cannot see how the new system improves in any way upon the old one. Under the ‘Police Authority’ system, decisions are taken by democratically elected Councillors. They work in partnership with Chief Constables, and have the power to hire and fire.

This is no different to PCCs, save that a PCC earns around £70,000 per annum before pension, and in so far as has been made clear by the woeful publicity campaign by the Home Office, will be working with less operational oversight than the current committee system. The entire process has cost well in excess of £100m.

Compare this with the histrionic comments from Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, bemoaning the members of ASLEF and RMT, who voted democratically for industrial action over a wide range of issues, on a much higher turnout than in the PCC Election. Instead they had to endure having their jobs threatened, integrity questioned, and being abused by professional politicians who have never meaningfully worked in their lives.

Almost every time a union dare show the audacity to stand up to aggressive employers, they find themselves having to wade through a quagmire of judicial treacle, with high paid barristers trying to persuade Judges that the collective voice of workers must be silenced due to a miniscule technical error, grammatical oversight, or voter turnout.

Trade Unions must seize upon the latest display of ideological duplicity by this rudderless government.

We have to turn this PCC election into the ghost that haunts the Tories, and chases them into an embarrassed retreat down the oak panelled halls of their country estates, each and every time they dare to question the democratic rights of organised labour to take collective action.

Domestic violence services in “worst crisis” on budgets

by Sarah McAlpine     November 5, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Services aimed at helping vulnerable and abused women are facing million-pound cuts as local authorities slash their budgets, leaving the womens’ sector in “the worst crisis it has ever been” in.

The top 152 councils in England are cutting spending to women’s services by an average of £44,914 each compared to budgets since 2009. Services include women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, domestic violence outreach, services for ethnic minority women, trafficked women & women in prostitution.

The cuts come in spite of a report conducted last year that found incidents of domestic violence had increased by 17% over the recession- to which experts attribute the rise. Women’s Aid report that around 320 women are turned away from domestic violence refuges each day.

Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre remarked that due to the impact of the cuts, the women’s sector was in “the worst crisis it has ever been,”

“So many service providers have been forced to shut down, are not able to provide the services to fit the demand, or are having to turn women away.”

Chief executive of domestic violence charity Nia, Karen Ingala Smith said that vulnerable women may be left with “nowhere to go” once the cuts impact, and there was concern that this could lead to the deaths of some women at the hands of violent partners. It is estimated that up to two women a week are killed by their partner in Britain.

The 101 councils who responded to questions on spending through a Freedom Of Information request from the Huffington Post revealed that £5.6m of cuts have been made to services for vulnerable women when compared to 2009/10 spending. London alone has cut 1.9m.

Mary Mason of Solace Women’s Aid warned that cuts to domestic violence services could also increase the cost of the crime- £5bn in England alone. “Early intervention and support works- for every £1 spent we save £8 to statutory services.”

“Yet all our services are full, all have waiting lists and all services are forced to restrict time spent on supporting women and children.”

Liberal Conspiracy spoke to Glenda*, who was referred to her local rape crisis centre after being brutally attacked in October 2010.  She received one on one counselling, which she regards as “an important part of my recovery.”

“It was good just to have somewhere safe to go where I could be with someone who understood. [They] helped me carry on surviving.”

Domestic Violence services have also warned that the true extent to the cuts may run much deeper- changes to housing benefits and reforms to universal benefit mean that some women may be unable to leave abusive and violent partners.

Barnet Council’s Labour group deputy leader Barry Rawlings explained that Refuges may have to close due to benefit reforms. “Refuges are vital for the safety of women and children and rely on housing benefit to make them viable. The concern is the payment will be direct to the claimant who may well have moved on from the refuge by the time the payments come through and the refuge will never get the payment.”

Vivienne Hayes added that “This failure to address the causes and consequences of women’s inequality and ignorance of the lifesaving and the cost saving services the women’s sector provides, is indicative of this governments’ attitude towards women.”



*name changed to protect identity

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