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Robin Millar: A right precept

Robin_millar Robin Millar is the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee in Forest Heath District Council, West Suffolk. His consultancy is focused on local government and he blogs regularly for his ward and his business.

This morning Conservatives promised people the power to veto unacceptable council tax increases, through a referendum of local households. This was a deft and unexpected political move that demonstrates again which party has its finger firmly on the pulse of voter concern.

But what do these proposals say about the Conservative view of local government?

Firstly, Conservatives control more than half of the local authorities in England and Wales today. Over the last decade, people have voted consistently for Conservatives as their Party of choice to deliver cost effective local services (all facts the opposition parties will not wish to draw attention to). Therefore Conservative Councillors may well scent Westminster's mistrust in these proposals.

Secondly, and confusingly given the last point, these proposals may be criticised as out of touch. They are too complicated to communicate ("Which part of the precept am I vetoing - a county council increase of 2.5% on £500 or the parish council increase of 25% on £50?"), too costly to administrate and still too close to a "cap".

Finally, the reason council taxes are rising is that service demands are increasing as well as expectations. At the same time, this government has reduced grants and increased the administrative burden. These proposals are disingenuous as they offer no real relief to this. Nor do they address the real problem of local government finance. They treat symptoms, but do nothing for the underlying cause. Arguably they make things worse. They are all "fruit", no "root".

However, these are not voter led arguments and they will not dull the political edge to the proposals. This announcement has the benefit of political surprise, the advantage of media coverage and will add to the political momentum of the recent inheritance tax pledge. Even wheeling out that favourite tool of opposition, the call for a referendum, will not overshadow a growing sense that this is a Party gearing up for Government.

Conservative instincts are correct; council tax is a profitable way forward. But effective reform of local government finance will not happen without the hard work of rethinking local government function. Conservatives have raised the question of social breakdown and the massive cost to society. Answering this question is where the long term savings lie. Using the effective response of Conservative councils to define the role of local government is where the long term political advantage lies.

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