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Pickles advises council on 50 ways to save

Nearly four years ago I wrote a post for this site entitled 100 ways to cut the Council Tax without cutting key services. Some were policies that had been adopted by Hammersimith and Fulham Council, others were examples from elsewhere. It was rather controversial at the time and subjected to some quite farcical misrepresentation.

James Alexander denounced the ideas - now as the Labour Leader of York Council he is cracking on with implementing some of them. Not enough though. There is still money wasted employing full time union officials, while the number of litter bins is reduced and the Council Tax is pushed up. 

Number 13 on my list was:

Stop funding translations / interpreting for Council documents and services and funding refugee lobby groups. This money is much better spent teaching people English. But even redirecting some of it, you should still find some change for Council Tax cuts.

This appears to have become official Labour Party policy.

Now the Department for Communities and Local Government has produced a guide which advises councils on 50 Ways to Save. I was very chuffed to see several items from my list on the DCLG version.

There have also been lots of new themes I had missed - for instance on transparency and shared services.

In my own council, selling surplus buildings to reduce debt and thus interest payments is a much bigger focus than it was four years ago. The DCLG list includes items on better asset management.

The Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs will be pleased to see several of their proposals endorsed. For example don't fund "sock puppets" and "fake charities." Don't pay mileage rates above the HMRC approved level.

The DCLG list includes thorough references to where the recommendations have already been implemented - often by the DCLG itself. Mr Pickles does not just talk the talk but also walks the walk.

Among the items from my list also on the DCLG's one are:

  • Ceasing to translate Council documents.
  • Put in an arrangement where the Council Leader and Cabinet Members have a firm grip on spending. The threshold for where spending needs to be authorised by the leader has been reduced from £300,000 to £100,000 in my borough. Of course there is no point in doing this if
    the leader is a pussycat who waves everything through.
  • Cut transaction costs by offering a discount to those who pay by direct debit.
  • Close subsidised council canteens.
  • Open cafes in the corner of libraries where there is some space. This could produce revenue as well as attracting more library users.
  • Freeze councillor allowances.
  • Freeze recruitment.
  • Stop spending money on management consultants.
  • Keep a tight grip on spending on agency staff.
  • Cease training courses with no tangible benefit.
  • Cease to employ staff to be trade union officials.
  • Include private advertising on council notice boards and from council land and examine the scope for private advertising in the council tax bill yearly mailing.
  • Sell or lease works of art not on display: Why retain vast art collections which just gather dust in storage?
  • Review membership subs.
  • Ban mineral water at council meetings: Tap water in refillable bottles costs nothing and is better for the environment.
  • Take a tough line on absenteeism.
  • Cut printing costs: Stop producing glossy brochures.
  • Encourage staff to offer efficiency suggestions.

One tiresome response to these lists is when someone picks out one item and says that on its own it would not be sufficient. The Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn said to Mr Pickles:

This week his top tip for cash-strapped councils was that they should loan out their artworks in return for cash. What planet is he living on?

Mr Benn is just being silly, isn't he? First of all it was not the top tip but one of 50 top tips. Secondly, the assumption that the sums involved are trivial is quite false. I do think that selling surplus art should also be considered. Southampton Council could clear most of its debt interest bill of £14.3 million if it sold its £190 million art collection which sits in storage. That would be equivalent to a Council Tax cut of nearly 20%. Worth £217 for those on Band D. I suppose a trifling sum if you are as rich as Mr Benn.

I have put in a Freedom of Information request to Leeds City Council so that we can see what the equivalent figure would be for Mr Benn's constituents.

Mr Benn says local government has taken a bigger share of the cuts than the rest of the public sector. He is right. If the rest of the state was on an equivalent economy drive the deficit would be eliminated this year. But this is not what Mr Benn has in mind. His implication seems to be that local government spending shouldn't be cut anymore and that borrowing should be even higher - the Greek model.

The list of ideas is constructive. It includes examples from Labour as well as Conservative councils. It was a Labour supporter, Jon Harvey, was gathered up some more ideas.

Any council complaining about budget cuts should work its way through all these ideas first - before cutting services.


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