What we pay for.
The Council Tax Conundrum
This is the Council Tax setting season, when we pore over budget lines and projections and try to make sense of them for our residents. The more granular the spreadsheets, the better we can explain.
Except we can’t do that for the County Council as they are not granular at all. The papers are very much “big picture,” so in terms of explaining the process to you I (and every other councillor) will struggle. Which is not right and does not allow proper scrutiny. We know there is at least a £19m over spend on the current year and no possibility of balancing the revenue budget even with the maximum tax increase of up to 6% (3% for the services revenue and 3% for adult social care. This is of course subject to a Full Council decision which will still leave a significant gap of £80m and therefore a continuing process of cuts and “efficiencies.”) The tax rise will be decided on 6th February and some more detail on 27th March at Cabinet.
This potential increase is serious enough, but doesn’t take account of the possible increase in the Police Precept or the potential increase in the District Council tax (a small proportion of the whole bill that affects households but significant enough.) I chaired the Finance Committee of Caterham on the Hill Parish Council last Friday and recommended no increase in the Parish Precept again this year. Residents will have enough to cope with.
Council Tax in this country is often an unjust form of taxation- that is it often hits the poor harder than the better off, as the tax is based on property value bands which are many years out of date. It is not related to income. Because the bands are so out of date people who could afford to extend and develop their property still get to pay a Band D tax while older people on fixed incomes in larger properties pay higher rates because they have not “downsized” their property.
This inherent injustice is of course a result of successive governments’ fear of re-valuing property bands lest their core base of voters would be losers. In one sense tying council tax to income (a local income tax) would be the only fair way to do things. If there were a Social Care levy, or 1p on income tax for the NHS, that would be fairer and a move towards a more just system.
TDC’s council budget papers are a lot clearer than SCC’s and so it is far easier to understand them. I have no idea what the decision on Council Tax will be, but at least we can scrutinise it properly when there is a proposal. There is no government grant to councils any more, so they have to be self-sufficient with Council Tax and other income. If an increase is proposed, I will only support it if it is absolutely necessary to maintain services.
It will transpire that the County Council will be able to do less. It may lose its children’s services to another body if it fails its Ofsted at the end of this month but would still have to pay for them. As I write, a gang is clearing out the drains at the top of Hilltop Lane in Chaldon, but because they don’t have a schematic map of where the connecting drains are they can’t finish the job properly.
The challenge for those bodies who raise Council Tax- the County and District Councils and the Police, is clear. Be straightforward with the public about what can be afforded, and what can’t, but make sure that the things you can afford to do are done well.
Potholes that qualify to be filled in are filled properly, to last, and quickly. SEN assessments are done properly; key workers who are on long term sick leave have their work properly covered so that families don’t suffer.
The gap between what councils and the police need is too large to be filled without government grant increases which austerity precludes under current policy. There is therefore an absolute requirement to be transparent and to do what is done as well as possible. Residents are entitled to competence as a minimum.
Caterham residents have been visiting exhibitions showing what the Masterplan might be able to do for Caterham Valley and Caterham Hill. This is part of a consultation on proposals drawn up by consultants working with land owners and developers to see what might be possible to improve the two town centres.
I have roundly criticised TDC in the past for ignoring Caterham for too long and being Oxted-centric, so I suppose I should be pleased they have funded the consultants to focus on our town; the trouble is the plans are not supported by any investment from the council itself- in the Valley TDC owns no land so is reliant on others for the investment.
However, the council is happy to invest in property elsewhere- I have been calling for the council to invest in Caterham, not leave things to others. So the potential re-development of the Valley will rely on more flats to fund investment and no plan will resolve the parking issues which bedevil commuters, shoppers and residents alike. What the town needs is more employment, more opportunities for business, more parking.
On the Hill TDC owns more land- the Townend Car Park (which is now usually full during the working day) and the Douglas Brunton centre. The Raglan precinct is privately owned and so only the owners can improve the parking or facilities there, and the High Street is cursed by poor parking enforcement and lazy drivers who park on the pavement.
Residents will be asked to vote soon on the CR3 Neighbourhood Plan. TDC will this year continue to develop the Local Plan. This is a surfeit of plans, so it is a bit galling that a so-called Masterplan resembles a series of hopes and dreams that don’t really address what we wish for. For TDC to be seen as taking Caterham seriously it must invest in land and property here to start to make a difference. Why would investors come to the town if the Council would rather invest in Maidstone?
Sometimes we get what we don’t pay for!
My work supporting schools is the most emotionally involving work I do. As a member of a small team of Surrey Advanced Skills Governors I have been sent, over the past five years or so, to help schools which need particular support, especially in their governance. Alas, cuts in the School Improvement budget have imperilled this programme, which has made a real difference across the County.
In my work with schools I meet everyday heroes; it would be a cliché to suggest that every teacher or teaching assistant is a hero, but there are elements of heroism in what they do, and mostly, a successful headteacher is a hero- or rather, in the primary sector where I work, a heroine. (It is a long standing irony that Word spellcheckers don’t accept headteacher, and convert the word to heartache!)
This heroism consists in three things I think for the primary headteacher- carrying the burden of responsibility for the wellbeing of a small child, their happiness, their growth; battling every day with resources that don’t always seem adequate in trying to meet the needs of a significantly increased number of small children with very severe behavioural difficulties; and in the case of headteachers, the loneliness of the job. They know that some children arrive hungry, are sleep deprived, are confused and tormented by tensions at home; and they know that in the school holidays they may go hungrier without the free school meal and perhaps have no one to listen to them for days on end. They try to sleep every night with that ineffable sadness.
The role of the school governor has been changed a number of times over the years and is now very focused on holding headteachers to account over the academic performance of the children. But one role which is hardly ever thought of and finds no expression in any government document is one which sits particularly with the Chair. Someone has to have a duty of care for the headteacher- offering counsel and support is the other side of the “holding to account” coin. And in a County school, if the headteacher is struggling or failing, the Chair has to deal with that, in whatever way is necessary. Poor governors, and poor governing bodies, are a real problem for headteachers, but good ones make a real difference for the staff and the children.
Governors are volunteers largely forgotten when the awards are given out, never invited to events celebrating the work of the voluntary sector, and generally invisible. If the school your children or grandchildren are at is a happy one, where they thrive and grow, governors have had something to do with that. Be grateful. Sometimes we get what we don’t pay for!