The Year to Come- Do I dare wish…???
The small lull for the holiday masks some frantic activity for Local Government finance chiefs and their masters as they struggle to understand what the settlement might mean for the forthcoming budget round.
Local Government will be able to lift council tax a little more to pay towards the ever-increasing cost of social care, which will hit many families hard and be unpopular. The police may be able to raise their precept too but because Council Tax is regressive- the poor are to be hit disproportionately. This is because council tax bands are very out of date and so the property values on which the bands are based bear little relation to the wealth of the council tax payer. No government has had the courage to tackle this issue as the change would, despite the current injustices, be very unpopular. A Local Income Tax has never proven to be a popular idea, even though it is likely to be the fairest way to raise money for local services. So the injustice and fudge in the system continues.
Which might be all very well if the public knew better what it was getting for its money. Years of austerity have seen local government funding from Westminster reduce to zero, so councils rely completely on council tax and whatever other income they can generate. This could be from property, not always but by now sometimes speculative; it could be from investments, or from selling services to other councils. Some Boroughs in Surrey are relatively wealthy, like Guildford and Woking, having built up property portfolios over the years. Tandridge has started to dip its toe in the water of property investment just as government is about to tighten the rules. Councils have been able to borrow from the Public Works Loan Board at very favourable interest rates- about 2.5%, and bought property with a rental yield which enables them to repay the loan and generate money for local services. From now on councils will have to demonstrate more explicitly how their residents benefit.
Of course you might wonder, as I do, why Surrey has used this power to invest in property in Wiltshire, or anywhere, rather than Surrey. It seems almost criminal that money borrowed from the Public Works Loan Board isn’t spent on local public works.
How do we make the best of it?
For the coming financial year we all face increased council tax bills we can ill afford (most of us) in return for fewer services- hedges not cut, potholes left unfilled, parents paying for school basics and less support for the elderly and vulnerable. The police will continue to be overstretched and we will continue to feel less safe in the dark at night.
So perhaps I need to focus my work at Tandridge and Surrey on what can be achieved, and to continue to try to raise public awareness of what is going on. At Parish level in Caterham on the Hill we will continue to use our well-stewarded resources to plug some of the gaps the bigger councils leave. But we are not able to plug gaps in statutory services.
There was a pretty extraordinary victory this month (December) when I got a motion through Surrey County Council unanimously supporting increasing the number of places for children with special needs within the County so fewer are sent to schools and placements far from their homes. All 81 councillors supported my motion. For the new year I need to build on that, work with the Leader to ensure that the resolution is delivered on, and make sure families who require special needs placements start to get a better, more family centred service closer to home.
The most urgent and pressing issue after that is the crisis too many of us turn away from, or pretend doesn’t exist, or worse, lie about.
The shortage of affordable housing is a deadly fungus in our society with a long reach into the fibre of the way so many have to live. For years families quietly rejoiced when the value of their house went up, imagining that it made them rich. The increase in value was based on a growing scarcity we all failed to face up to so that now the things we did are not accessible to our children or grandchildren.
When I went to university I left home. When I graduated I got a job, got married and lived in a rented house until we could afford a deposit. Going back to my parents to live would have been unthinkable. For so many of our children and grandchildren such independence can only be a dream, and the growing homelessness crisis is a result. The scrabble for what is affordable is ever more tough and more and more fail to make it, and finish up on acquaintances’ sofas, or the streets. When somebody tells you we mustn’t build on the Green Belt they tell you they imagine the homelessness crisis can somehow be magicked away. They are lying to themselves and to you. Those who complain we mustn’t build for “inward migration” are fuelling this crisis. If we allow more people to live here then there will be more room elsewhere, in cheaper parts of the country, for those who can afford less. If we make homes affordable for our own, we prevent them having to migrate to cheaper areas and so leave more space for others. NIMBYism is a major contributor to the housing crisis.
The hard truths of poverty and homelessness are not what we hoped for in the years before the financial crisis. But years of austerity have left the infrastructure which supports the poor or unfortunate broken, almost beyond repair.
So these are my New Year Resolutions. I set them out so that I can look back in a year’s time and take stock.
1. I will try to persuade TDC and SCC to invest closer to home in infrastructure, including affordable homes, which benefit our residents and future generations. Let our children see that we are investing in their future.
2. I will work to ensure that the Tandridge Local Plan delivers for current and future generations in Tandridge, and seek to expose the NIMBYs for what they are.
3. I will work to bring SEN places closer to the families who need them, and to ensure that families get a better service, focused on their needs and minimising their stress and anxieties.
4. I will work to raise awareness in residents of the impact of austerity on local services and help them to understand what can and can’t be afforded, honestly. Austerity is a decision, or a set of decisions, about how the country is governed. It is not beyond our control, like the weather. It doesn’t just happen, and some are benefitting from it at the expense of the rest.
5. BREXIT is not an excuse for government to fail local councils or local services. I resolve to fight for local government to get the resources it needs to deliver for the vulnerable.
Well, we will see what I can do. So will you!