Hart of the Matter
Itís that time of year again when the minds of councillors and officers turns to budgets and council tax (yawn).
I am told that council tax is a big turn-off to readers, which is strange, as we all pay it, and most of us complain about it loudly enough, when the time comes and it begins to pinch.
However, efforts by councils to drag a significant number of people into the debate about what level to set council tax at have usually failed dismally. Councils donít admit that, and like to claim that several hundred responses to any consultation is good, especially if a lot of them are electronic, because that is the way the world is moving.
Electronic responses are supposed to show a greater involvement from younger people, which is the Holy Grail of consultation, the assumption being that older people are more likely to respond, as having nothing better to do, and their opinions matter little because they will soon be dropping off their perches and not bothering us any more.
I suspect the smallish number of people who respond to consultation about council tax, or anything else for that matter, stems from a cynical lack of belief that anyone will take any notice of what they say.
Previous exercises have not helped in this regard, particularly the schools re-organisation one, which appears to have been particularly cosmetic. I notice a similar exercise in Babergh has just come out with (surprise, surprise) the same result.
Itís a pity because there is a real debate to be had about council tax levels, even in tough economic times like these.
The latest announcement from Suffolk County Council is that the rise in their share will be just 2.4 per cent, the lowest ever, they say, although itís only been going for 20 years, at least ten of which were very affluent, so thatís not saying much.
Council tax is a complicated animal, but suffice it to say that most of it goes to the county council, so its decision is the one that really matters. The borough council, the town or parish council and the police all take a share as well, but none of them require enough to make much difference to the pain in your pocket in the way the county council one does.
Interrupting the resounding cheer at the economic efficiency of the county council which has led to this small rise, one can gently point out that other organisations are having to spend money on what the county is not doing any more.
For example, Haverhill Town Council will now be buying grit bins for minor roads in Haverhill to stop them turning into ice rinks in bad weather because the county wonít grit them.
Some traffic management schemes now will have to be paid for in other ways because they donít fit county criteria Ė there is one pending in Queensway which the town council will be spending £10,000 on this year.
Multiply this across the county and you begin to see that tax is not really reduced, just redistributed for political purposes, as low council tax seems to be equated with efficiency and therefore re-electability.
Now, is that so? Is that what we really want? Wouldnít it be better for services to be provided, even if we had to pay a little more? Some will say yes, others no.
Opponents will argue that people should have choice locally of which services they want provided, but it strikes me that if elderly people are being stuck for five days in their homes for lack of gritting, that is an essential service which has been axed and not one we should be forced to pick and choose about.
I see £1.5m is being budgeted for repairing roads after the bad winter. This year the money ran out before Christmas, which is why there are so many potholes, and why they are being filled in an emergency fashion which means that a week or two later they are just as bad again.
The reason we pay so much to the county council is that it is responsible for the labour-intensive services Ė schools, care of children and the elderly, highways and so on.
It is not an easy job to prioritise these things. We all tend to feel the one we need at a particular time is the most important.
So just what constitutes an essential service? It is a debate we should all be taking part in.