Council Tax freeze in Windsor & Maidenhead
With the national economic picture looking bleak - and somewhat scary - here in October 2008, writing some words on shaving a few percentage points off the local Council Tax might seem to some as a rather surreal exercise.
However, for a good number of residents that are on fixed and limited incomes, often elderly, the Council Tax can be the biggest bill that they pay. For those on average incomes the bill is still a hefty charge each month – even at the 1991 rated values, our average dwelling in Windsor & Maidenhead is rather more Band E than it is Band D and tax is therefore some 22% higher than the ‘average’ headline Band D rate that we set in the annual budget.
There is the fundamental Conservative driver that, where money can be left in the pockets of the taxpaying public, it should be. Unlike income tax, Council tax is an ‘after tax’ tax and as such a typical householder in paid employment needs to earn rather more in actual wages to pay the Council Tax because Gordon Brown and friends take a fair chunk before it can be used for anything else.
We inherited the Council in 2007 following 4 years of Liberal Democrat tax rises amounting to just short of 25%. After inflation, that’s an increase of over 10% in real terms. Worse, much of the increased revenue went on staff salaries rather than providing the taxpayer with millions of pounds worth of extra public services. Their financial policy was – in black and white – that “the Borough’s strategy to calculate future Council Tax increases to be marginally below the anticipated capping limit ..” (yes - really!) and also "it is important that it [Council Tax] is used to generate the maximum amount of income possible".
So to revert to the 2003/4 levels of Council Tax, in theory there’s budgetary scope for our Council Tax to be reduced in real terms by 10%. If we were further to assume that the 2003/4 level was too high, then even more reductions could be possible, all things being equal. It’s rather more complex than this, but it sets the scene.
Our policy, from our 2007 manifesto, is “to aim to limit Council Tax rises, at or below the rate of inflation without cutting services”. The ‘to aim’ part was reluctantly necessary because of the power of Government to change the rules - outside of our control.
We decided on a 2.4% rise last year, a real terms cut at 1.5% under September RPI, and the fifth lowest unitary rise in the country (non-Met) (and the second lowest of unitary councils who didn’t have elections)! And George Osborne’s recent announcement would have given us a cut in absolute terms had it been in effect for the current financial year.
As Windsor and Maidenhead is a unitary authority, we have adult social care, the full range of childrens’ services as well as the responsibilities of a district Council. Savings have been found by increasing use – and careful management – of external providers for domiciliary care, by smarter procurement, by reducing administrative staff positions and holding posts vacant where existing staff could operate normally. With a determination to avoid service cuts, we operate a policy of maintaining front line posts but actively scrutinising managerial, administrative and back office structures when vacancies arise; we saved a good six figure sum in the last financial year by this strategy. We have met understandable resistance from officers when trying to remove existing posts on a permanent basis, but the interests of residents must always come before those of (their) employees in the Town Hall.
All this might give the impression that we’re just in the business of cutting everything back, continuously. So in general whilst we’re in favour of the smaller state, it’s not uniformly so; in fact, we’re expanding the number of our community wardens and the powers available to them. We’re also sponsoring additional PCSOs in the Borough to add to the rather underfunded (by Labour) Thames Valley Police.
Budgeting is not straightforward – but as with most things in life, the more you do it, the better you get.