Taken for a ride by Conservative councils

This part of England may be flat, but its taxation is on a rising gradient.
Four of the 11 Tory tax-raisers, the county and three district or city
councils, are in Cambridgeshire. A Band-D council tax payer in Peterborough
– which plans a 2.95 per cent rise – will end up paying about £62 more next
year if the hike goes ahead.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has stormed that some of his local
government colleagues are “treating the electorate with contempt” and
delivering a “kick in the teeth to hard-working taxpayers”.

Mr Pickles has set aside £805 million in grants to compensate any council that
agrees a freeze. Any authority agreeing not to raise its council tax will be
paid, by Whitehall, an amount equivalent to the money it would have raised
from a hike of 2.5 per cent.

Mr Pickles is particularly angry because most of the “rebel” councils – and
nearly all the Tory ones – have set rises between 2.5 per cent, the amount
they would have got from the Government anyway, and 3.5 per cent, the amount
above which voters would have to approve the increase in a local referendum.
Cambridgeshire’s raise, 2.95 per cent, is typical.

Cambridgeshire insists taking the Pickles money – which is only guaranteed for
a year – would have left it with a “£30 million financial hole” over the
next five years. It says even with the rises, it will still be in the bottom
seven of shire councils for overall council tax. “We will remain a low-tax
authority,” a spokesman said. “In the last two years we have seen a 25 per
cent reduction in government funding – more than the national average.” The
tax rise, he insisted, was “not linked to the cost of the guided busway”.

Mr Pickles is not impressed. “They should have the courage to put their hikes
to the vote and justify the rises,” he said. “Instead they are running for
cover. Freezing council tax is practical help every councillor can offer
their constituents. Councillors have a moral duty to sign up to keep down
the cost of living.”

For Cambridgeshire’s Tory councillors, the standard of living has been a key
consideration – their own standard of living, at least. At the same time as
they planned millions of pounds in cuts, dozens of redundancies, and not
long before they voted to increase council tax, they also approved an
increase of 25 per cent in their own allowances for attending meetings.

A spokesman protested that many councillors had been “struggling” on their
previous pay, and claimed the rise as a victory for democracy. It would make
Cambridgeshire “far less likely to experience a democratic deficit in terms
of attracting people to stand for election” and would break down barriers
that “deterred people from diverse backgrounds” from coming forward.

The rises were only stopped after it was spotted that the council had not
followed correct procedure. Undeterred, Cambridgeshire has come up with a
scheme that would raise councillors’ pay by a slimline average of just 19
per cent.

The county is also planning a “furniture tax”, with a £315 charge for pubs,
cafes and restaurants that want to put tables and chairs outside their
premises. And in Ely, the district council wants to charge motorists for
parking in the streets as well as increasing its own share of the council
tax.

Ely’s population is only 18,000, but 12,000 people signed a petition against
the charges. “We are about to have a huge Sainsbury’s opening with 500 free
parking spaces,” said Andrew Olley, spokesman for the town’s traders’
association. “When you make changes of this kind, drivers vote with their
wheels. These plans would change the whole nature of what is currently a
very vibrant town centre.”

The proposal scored a whole page of condemnation in the recent
government-sponsored review into high streets by retail guru Mary Portas.
“The council has shown no appetite for listening to traders,” Ms Portas’s
report said. “The Ely Traders Association’s initial attempt to hold a
meeting at the council building was thwarted by a response that they would
need to insure for £5million public liability cover in order to hold the
meeting. There is no indication that the council is listening to public
opinion.” (The council leader says this is a “misrepresentation of the
facts”, but the charging proposals remain.)

The “white elephant” in the room, however, as the Cambridge MP Julian Huppert
has described it, is the guided bus. It was meant to open in 2009 with a
predicted cost of £115 million, with all the money coming from central
government grants and developers. Instead, after a series of floods, delays
and construction disasters, it ended up opening in August 2011 and costing
60 per cent more than that. The council is currently suing its contractor,
BAM Nuttall, to avoid having to pay the overrun. Legal fees in the case
alone, all likely to fall on council taxpayers, have been budgeted at more
than £5 million. And if Cambridgeshire loses, it could be £90 million out of
pocket.

Still, it has made journeys quicker and more frequent, right? Not exactly. The
old express service from St Ives to Cambridge, along the admittedly
congested A14 main road, used to run every 20 minutes and take half an hour.
The new, improved service runs every 20 minutes and takes, er, 36 minutes.
(The scheme has brought extra buses to Cambridge from a park-and-ride site
just outside St Ives.)

Locals do seem to like the scheme, but the council’s promise that 3.5 million
of them would use it in the first year seems unlikely to be fulfilled. Amid
great hype, dutifully recycled by the local papers, about how the service
was “exceeding expectations”, the millionth passenger was carried on January
12 – a level that equates to 200,000 passengers a month, or just over
two-thirds of the promised annual level. Meanwhile, in a move the council
insists has nothing to do with the busway project, all other subsidised bus
services across the rest of the county are to be axed to save money.

Tory councils, it seems, don’t always cost you less.

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