Sunday, 2 May 2010

Barnet Tories' election claims examined no.1: that council tax freeze

Barnet Tories have taken out a full page ad in the Times series listing their candidates for the council elections, and the reasons why they think residents should vote for them.

They keep it simple. I can imagine the strategists now: let's come up with three big claims that the punters can remember (and swallow). Here are those three claims:
1. Barnet's first Council Tax freeze in the borough's 45-year history
2. Conservatives will never allow development on the Green Belt
3. Conservatives will continue to collect rubbish on a weekly basis
Are you sold? I offer this comment on the first of the claims. It makes Barnet Tories look less impressive.

At the same time as Barnet Tories passed their 2010/11 budget, including the council tax freeze, Labour and Liberal Democrat groups on the council presented alternative budgets. Labour's budget included a 1% cut in council tax; Lib Dems also proposed to freeze council tax. All parties did this in recognition of the financial squeeze on residents; but only the Tories can hope to benefit electorally from their action. It's hard to imagine that they could resist the temptation, when drawing up their budget at the start of the year, to find a way, whatever it took, to promise a council tax freeze.

But there's no such thing as a free lunch. Tax freezes come at a price - this budget entailed around £12 million in cuts. The 2010/11 budget includes around £3.1 million "efficiencies" in adult social services - including the £400,000 cut to sheltered housing wardens which has been so unpopular (and, so far, legally unenforceable). The budget includes £1.8 million "efficiencies" and £0.9 million "service reductions" in the children's service.

All parties' budgets reflect their political priorities. Are residents sufficiently aware of what has been cut to deliver the freeze? Would they be happy with the choices made? Barnet council's public consultation over the budget was tokenistic, and the participation was lamentably small. The main component was an "Online Budget Simulator" which a mere 575 people tried out. Several commented on the fact that they were only allowed to approve or deepen proposed cuts; there was no option for actually increasing expenditure anywhere.

A council report on the consultation says:
Respondents broadly agreed that the Budget Headlines had identified the right level of savings and that council tax should be frozen next year. Of those who disagreed with the freeze, respondents wanted to see increased expenditure in Adult Social Services and Children’s Services. In terms of the council introducing charges for services they don’t currently charge for, respondents tended to disagree with this concept or say they ‘did not know’.
Given the low number of respondents, all the findings are statistically insignificant.

The consultation with residents shows anything but a ringing endorsement of Barnet Tories' 2010/11 budget or their easyCouncil plans. Do Barnet Tories care? Almost certainly not. All they want residents to see is the headline boast "Conservatives freeze council tax". Whatever will get them past the election...

1 comment:

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Dealing with the first claim, it should be noted that the Conservatives only achieved this using labour’s old trick of plundering the reserves in an election year. Real Conservative councils in other parts of the country have been delivering real cuts in council tax year on year. They would be ashamed at taking 45 years to deliver a mere freeze.

As for the claim that they will never allow green belt development, this is an untruth because certain development is already permitted on such land - sports stadia for example. Just as with the easyCouncil idea of allowing people to pay more to jump the queue in the planning process - something which would not actually be legal - it seems that facts do not need to get in the way of election claims. But the opposition do seem to be rather slow in capitalising on this.