Local Government is rightly making the news and that is due to the raft of inflation busting increases levied across North Wales by our local authorities. After a number of years when we have seen Council Tax increasing by around 5% annually here in Conwy this year has seen a jump to over 9%. These are, for all concerned, hugely difficult and challenging decisions which have resulted in Council Tax moving from being an accepted but somewhat resented part of your monthly bills to being, for many people, their largest single monthly outlay. This will only get worse.
Some people will be tempted to make political points at this juncture and let’s be honest, why not? I expressed my disappointment with year on year 5% council tax increases so I should do the same with this proposed increase in excess of 9%. However, to blame ‘austerity’ or for that matter the ‘Welsh Government’s funding formula’ is missing the point. Let’s be honest here, local government has suffered the brunt of UK Government ‘austerity’ over the past eight or nine years and yet year on year overall UK Government spending has actually increased. That increase in Government spending will accelerate due to increases in pension costs and our commitment as a Government to transform our health service with an extra £20bn. These are choices made in Westminster and they have consequences.
The same is true in Wales. The NHS won the lion’s share of increased spending in Wales and the funding formula used by the Welsh Government works against a large local authority with a sparsely populated and largely older population demographic. Again, these are political choices made in Cardiff by the Welsh Government. So we should accept that the choices made in both Cardiff and Westminster have not made it easy for local authorities. Thus Council tax has become a political hot potato, after all, who wants to pay more tax?
However, whilst local councillors, and there are 59 of them, have no option other than to make their own choices, the challenges facing Conwy are apparent from the scale of the increase and the real concern that exists about education funding and the relentless increase in care spending. The protests from parents, teachers and pupils against the challenging financial situation faced by schools is understandable and needs to be addressed but the very same week my postbag was also inundated with complaints about an ‘unjustified’ increase in Council Tax. In the same way, my office often deals with cases where the costs of care are being met by families who think the cost should be met by the local Council. Sometimes we win a case and sometimes we lose but it illustrates my point. We all want great services but who should pay for them?
In all of this fire and fury around council tax and local services I think we need to take a step back. As a country we are still living beyond our means. Spending is higher than tax receipts and often spending cuts from Westminster or Cardiff have simply become increases in council tax and the police precept for local people. It’s about time we asked fundamental questions about the funding model used for local government and also our priorities as a country. Pointing the finger of blame is easy and predictable – we should aspire to try and deal with the real issues.