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New Year's resolutions for councils

Wallace new Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance suggests a Town Hall spending diet in 2010.

It has become an odd tradition for regular columnists in all sorts of publications to dedicate their first piece of the year to predictions of what to expect from the next 12 months.

Some will compile the most gushing list of wishful thinking to be found outside the Chancellor’s Budget speech. England will win the World Cup, someone talented and deserving will win the X Factor, everyone’s overdrafts will magically vanish, Catherine Tate will finally produce some funny sketches, Russell Brand might manage a full 12 months without a visit to a specialist clinic, and Osama bin Laden will suffer a fatal fall down the stairs in his obscure and dingy hideout.

Others will pen a tale of doom and gloom grim enough to rival Gordon Brown’s horoscope. Britain will plunge into a double dip recession, no-one will bother to vote in the General Election at all, every child will get a mobile phone that has a built-in knife, every TV advert will be for a price comparison website and rail companies will finally abandon the pretence of actually selling tickets and simply begin to mug people in broad daylight.

I intend to do neither. Instead, I will lay out a brief manifesto for what local councils should do this year to make a real change to their residents’ lives – and perhaps provide a boost to their own popularity.

This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to solve every problem that Town Halls or local taxpayers face. However, the proposals it contains are both desirable and feasible. Despite all the meddling from above, councils still have many opportunities to make people’s lives better. So, councillors, here is my list of tips for you in 2010:

1. Scrap speed cameras. As was reported on this blog a few days ago, Swindon council did this and the dire predictions of road chaos and traffic casualties have simply not come true. Local residents, as well as national newspapers in Swindon’s case, will thank you for it.

2. Ditch stealth taxes and snooping powers. There are a lot of things that council officers are allowed by law to do, from spying on people under the RIPA anti-terror laws, to fining people for non-offences like leaving their bin lid open or putting their rubbish out early. Just because you can do these things, doesn’t mean you should. Cut out invasions of privacy, and petty penalties – they erode personal liberty, they annoy people and they make you look silly.

3. Give power to the people. Real localism doesn’t just mean power resting in the council chamber, it means power flowing right down into the hands of the people wherever possible. Why not hold more referenda on contentious issues (and then obey the results)? Don’t let the naysayers’ cries of “apathy” get you down – give people the power to change things and watch communities and democracy flourish.

4. Disobey the EU, and refuse to pay their fines. It is a disturbing trend that not only do Whitehall and Westminster increasingly intervene in supposedly local issues, but Brussels does, too. TPA polling demonstrates that the EU entirely lacks legitimacy amongst the public, so you can save money and win votes by simply disobeying EU regulations and refusing to pay any resulting fines. This is the right thing to do, and everyone loves to see David beating Goliath.

5. Slash your advertising and publicity spending. The average council now spends around £1 million a year on publicity. Some of this is entirely legitimate, such as telling people about key services, some of it is legally required, but in your heart of hearts you know that a lot of it is glossy puff-pieces. Similarly, do you really need to spend taxpayers’ money on job adverts in the Guardian? Cut it out and you will be thanked.

6. Cut your own allowances. 2010 will be another tough year for most of your local taxpayers. Why not vote to cut your own allowances, to demonstrate that you understand and are willing to tighten your belts to lighten the load on them?

7. Publish all your spending. The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has successfully blazed the trail on transparency in local government by publishing all their spending over £500. Doing the same in your council would be a real transfer of power to local people, and would send an unequivocal message that you know it is their money.

For the many more readers of this column who aren’t councillors, here are three things that any reader of this article can do this year to make a difference, too:

1. Ask your councillors in your ward to follow the seven proposals listed above. Write to them, email them or ask them face to face in their surgery.

2. Join the TaxPayers’ Alliance and help to keep the pressure up for lower taxes and better services for all of us. You can do so for free here.

3. Most important of all: never, never give up the fight to make things better. Local government belongs to us, the people, and we must make it answer to us once more.


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