The Accounts Commission does a fine job. Given that local councils are run by (no offence intended as I’m one myself) a bunch of amateur councillors, as a result of the way they are selected, it is self-evident that some independent body to check how well they look after around £11bn in public money is needed. So their remit therefore makes perfect sense, viz:
“The Accounts Commission is the public spending watchdog for local government. We hold councils in Scotland to account and help them improve.”
Their publications mostly focus either on individual councils or on a service many councils provide in common. In both cases, they attempt to winkle out what is not being done well and make solid suggestions how improvements might be achieved. When they stick to their last, this is normally incisive stuff that goes unremarked by the press.
But last week, the Accounts Commission published “Charging for services: are you getting it right?“ forty pages largely questioning why there was so much (and implying there should not be any) differences among charges to the public meted out by councils, such as library fines and sports facility access. Being something of a grey area, the status of the Accounts Commission and the criticism implied in its report was picked up by the media and was seen as criticism of council behaviour.
Now, this column is no apologist for Scottish Councils, who still have much to learn about flexibility and how to deal with uncertain income. But, clumsy in scale for giving effective democracy as they are, they are all we have to reflect ‘local’ decisions and the fact that Lerwick and Larbert have very different needs and therefore priorities in local services. The report seemed to take scant notice of this.
Coming on top of a disturbing series of one-sided decisions on councils taken by the Scottish Government—centralising fire and police; jamming huge extra housing demands onto hard-won local plans; strong-arming a council tax freeze long past its sell-by date; running a coach and horses through our justice system—there has been a growing democratic deficit that the toothless and passive CoSLA is unable to counter.
Whether that was the Accounts Commission’s intention of not, the media has taken their report as an indication that differing council charges are bad and that, somehow central regulation would be more ‘fair’. This is a nonsense and flies in the face of the very reasons why local government exists. This is compounded by the scale of local government in Scotland. Look at equivalents across western Europe and North America where councils have under 20,000 inhabitants, our average of 140,000 seems remote and clumsy by comparison—we are already on the way to the homogenisation the report seeks.
But, after decades of faceless bureaucrats in a distant town being resented for their unresponsive service, people even here are waking up to localism, whether it be manning museums with volunteers, dynamic sports clubs seeking partial support from their council or trade association cutting deals that they will water hanging baskets if the council would just provide them. A decade ago councils were awash with dosh. But now we need to find creative ways of engaging with the public to help or lose services is now being forced on us all by shrinking funding for everything, not just local government.
Why should councils not operate more like businesses, raising more revenue from services they deem to be less essential, providing better services to attract people to come to live in their area? People vote with their feet anyway—just ask Inverclyde, despite its stunning views of Cowal and look at house prices in Aberdeen where energy business is prospering. Why should a travel concession card allow travel on express buses to the other end of the country and be valid at rush hour when local bus services are being cut? Why should a sports centre not charge more and provide top-notch equipment to compete with a Bannatyne’s private club round the corner—offering equivalent quality but cheaper?
And if buses rate high in Kinlochbervie while sports centres do in Kinross, isn’t that why we have councils to provide—as far as is possible—what their residents want and not what some pencil-neck on Victoria Quay deems to be the universal goal from Rhinns of Galloway to Muckle Flugga? And, while we’re there, note that both lighthouses are not the same—the Northern Lighthouse Board seems smarter than the Accounts Commission in accepting that one size lighthouse does not fit all.
This logic applies in spades to Council Tax. While freezing it for a few years made eminent sense to help people through the recession, it is now hamstringing the very local democracy we Scots are so bad at—and driving council charges upward because that is the only lever left to them to derive income. It is long past time to unfreeze it and, because all parties agree it is a regressive tax hitting the poor harder, get shifting on a fairer alternative that is not the now-discredited local income tax.
By allowing a bump in Council Tax, councils then would have the option of direct charging more for services or using the tax to levy funds across the broad population so that some disadvantaged group in real need of funding would not bear the whole financial burden. And if a council ratcheted its rate up by an excessive amount, governments have not been shy in capping in the past. Or they could take a more enlightened view and use Housing legislation to help people move where the rate was less usurious.
However, prior to that, the council tax structure needs adjustment to be less regressive. A local income tax is discredited because people in mansions with little income would pay little. The poll tax remains discredited for similar reasons—the value of the home is not taken into account. But there are other ways to skin this particular cat and one is to split higher bands and add a few more so that the top rate of council tax became a mansion tax. This was posited in an earlier column and bears repeating because it does problems with the above—reducing tax at the low end, boosting it in the middle and charging 1% of the value of mansions worth £1/2m or more, whose owners can afford it.
And if a council was minded to drop its council tax as an incentive to attract high-fliers by its more reasonable charges, this simply reflects the way most of the world—and certainly multinational business—has worked for some time. So, rather than berating councils for not being all the same, the Accounts Commission (and the Scottish Government) needs to wake up to the incentives and efficiencies available by engaging at those local levels, which would, in turn, lessen the current set of cuts and allow us to provide for those in greater need through the funds thus saved.