Conservative success in Wandsworth has been underpinned by financial control. Even if people aren’t natural Conservatives, the wisdom goes, they’ll vote Conservative in local elections because the borough is efficiently run and keeps its hands out of tax-payers’ pockets.

There is something to that; historically the Conservatives have polled better in local elections than in national elections; defeats for the Conservatives at general elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were all followed within a year by easy victories in the local election. The discipline that held all the way through that period cemented their reputation as a low-tax borough. I’m not sure the pain that discipline caused just to be a few pence a year cheaper than Westminster Council1 was worth it, but it was unquestionably there and a source of some envy from other councils.

That’s not to say the council was always mercenary. I remember when the group voted to close York Road library (which served the Winstanley and York Road estates) the then Leader, Edward Lister vetoed the decision because, I like to think, he knew it was just wrong: closing a library in one of our most deprived neighbourhoods to save a few pence was going too far. It may have been hard-edged when it came to cash, but it wasn’t ruthless.

Recently it’s become clear the council’s efficiency is not what it was, you only need to see the state of the roads and pavements (which they won’t let us know). But it kept a grip on the finances.

Now it just makes it up.

The last council meeting of the 2014-2018 council took place last Wednesday. It was an acrimonious affair. The main part of the meeting was the setting of the council tax: an annual event that used to be something of a set-piece at which Conservatives would take turns to praise the council then vote through the council tax before retiring to the pub for a self-congratulatory pint.

But on Wednesday the Tories abandoned years of responsible financial management. Panicking about the election they threw out a last-minute election bribe.

We all knew there was a Conservative amendment to the council tax recommendation but few people, including most of the Conservative group, had no idea what it was. The council was being asked to set a council tax on information it wasn’t allowed to know until the time came for the Leader to read it out while a council employee moved through the council chamber distributing the copies of the amendment. The amendment was printed hours earlier but kept under wraps because the leader needs every advantage he can get in the council chamber. It announced £10 million extra (perhaps) for nice things just in time for the election.

There were complaints about this, of course. It is illegal to set a budget that does not balance (there was no sign of where this money was from) and council standing orders prevent the introduction of an amendment that increases spending at the meeting. There was a degree of confusion while officers checked, trying to find a way to allow it, and the Leader was eventually saved by a backbencher who pointed out that the amendment wasn’t even a spending commitment but merely a commitment to look for £10 million.

In other words it was meaningless: calling it a bribe is probably an insult to bribery – it’s an IOU with no indication of how it will be paid.

The Leader was a little more blunt about it later: the money was to come from reserves. There are several possible interpretations to this. One is that they have built up reserves purely to use as an electoral bribe. Another is that if the level of council reserves isn’t artificially high, they were also implicitly announcing that there will be a £10 million tax hike, or £10 million of cuts after the election.

Whichever it is, there is no doubt that the £10 million is a sign of desperation. A last throw of the dice from a worried council leader hoping to buy votes in an election that looks dangerously close.

Of course, it’s lovely he feels the need to stump up £10 million from reserves to bribe the electorate with nice things. But some might argue the money would be better spent on repairing the crumbling roads and broken pavements. Maybe even paying for the Fire Risk Assessments not carried out in council blocks despite the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Or, just perhaps, they could invest in the children’s services department which is still failing two years after Ofsted’s original damning judgement.

Of course, bribing the electorate might have been a good tactical decision. We won’t know until 4 May. If nothing else it gave a Conservative group that are questioning his leadership something to cheer about as they head into a council election.

But when sound financial management is not just your unique selling point, but your only selling point, is a last-minute bribe for the electorate—highlighting that you play fast and loose with the council coffers for electoral gain—really a good strategic move?

I suspect not.

  1. A bizarre competition, the structure of local government finance meant Westminster could have easily set a lower tax, but it was politically expedient for them not to be the lowest: they were the ones setting a reasonable budget, not the ones cutting services just to set a low council tax like Wandsworth.

Another edict extending direct democracy has come forth from Eric Pickles. This time that a local referendum will be forced whenever a local council increases council tax by more than a pre-set amount.

As a government fan boy you would expect me to support it, but while I’m definitely in the fan boy category (why else did I sacrifice so much of my life knocking on doors through each and every general election false start from 2007 onwards?) I can’t quite make my mind up on this one.

On the face of it, it is perfectly sensible. The notion that Whitehall should be deciding what is, and isn’t, an appropriate level of council tax is just crazy. The key word in the phrase local democracy is local. The current system – which will remain in place until the law is changed – has nothing local about it at all, since it can see a minister from a totally different part of the council (and a different party) making decisions about areas of which he or she knows nothing. So the principle of moving power from Whitehall to local people is not one with which I can disagree.

However, I do wonder whether a local referendum is the right way. While many of my youthful beliefs in the constitution have disappeared I’m still a fan of representative democracy – we elect people to act as representatives, not as a delegates, and tend not to use direct democracy.

Of course, many of the old arguments against direct democracy are disappearing. People are (generally) more intelligent and informed than at any time in history. The argument that they don’t, or can’t, have the full information to take a decision applies less and less each day. However, the fact remains that we live in a representative democracy and there are problems in trying to blend the two. If you have a council elected on a specific platform one year it’s hard to then vote to remove the budget they need to enact that platform the next. And this starts getting towards where my concerns about this lie.

I have no problem with the principle that power should be devolved as far as possible. And am not someone who believes for a second that the lowest level of devolution is the council; the lowest level is the individual. But I am very keen on local democracy. And it’s the other key word in that phrase that causes my concern with this proposal. To my mind the key to a strong and successful democracy is linking the vote you cast with the consequences of that vote, and that vote alone.

Local democracy isn’t that healthy in this country. One of the key reasons is that so much local government funding comes from central government. When this is combined with the huge amount of regulation laid down over the years it meant that impact of a local vote on your life was significantly less than the impact of a national vote, to the extent that many council elections are seen as little more than verdicts on the government of the day.

The best way to improve local democracy, to my mind, is to strengthen the link between people’s votes in local elections with what happens in their area. This means giving councils freedom, so they aren’t just acting as agents for Whitehall and can innovate (or even make mistakes) to make a difference to their area. And it means ensuring that people recognise and see the consequence of their votes so that when they are casting them the next time it is a referendum on their local council, not on whoever is in No 10.

I’d be interested in seeing how the proposals work and the reaction of others to them (I’m quite prepared to accept I’m wrong on this). But it seems to me that just as we don’t have a referendum on income tax or VAT rises, but instead will allow the country to pass judgement in 2015, we should be reminding people how important it is to pass judgement on their local councils and councillors in local elections.

It’s not really news, since the intention has been known for weeks – and could have been guessed for months, if not years – but Wandsworth formally set a 0% increase in council tax for 2010/11 last night at a special meeting of the full council.

They are always odd meetings. You would expect them to be something of a set-piece occasion, it is, after all, the council’s budget. But we don’t have red boxes, or quaint traditions that the relevant councillor is allowed, on this one occasion, a sip of whiskey in the chamber. Instead we have a fairly dry affair in which the Conservatives lay out their proposals and Labour try and argue against them; try and fail.

It must be hard, you’ve got a good council, well rated independently, with incredibly high resident satisfaction and the lowest council tax in the country. What, exactly, do you go for?

To give the Labour party their due, they did try. Their argument was for exactly the same council tax, but with three key differences.

  1. Pay people more,
  2. Except high earners who should be paid less (they implied senior council officers were “socially useless” which suggests they’ve already given up hopes of winning the council and working with them in May), and
  3. Lord Ashcroft.

It was a truly bizarre argument. Essentially socialist on pay with attempts at political point-scoring as if Ashcroft were also funding the council. (And missing the point that they have their own non-dom funder in Lord Paul, not to mention the numerous peerages they sold to taxpayers.) Indeed, I wonder why I am even airing their arguments here, since not a single member of the public or press was in attendence for the meeting.

But aside from their bluster the business of the council went through. And council tax stays the same for the third year running. Wandsworth is an incredibly well-run and managed authority, and credit it due to all the people involved, from top to bottom.

Wandsworth is planning on keeping council tax at the same rate for the third year running. In one of those bizarre twists of local government finance Wandsworth’s average council tax is dropping because the Putney and Wimbledon Commons Conservators (who levy a precept to maintain the commons) are reducing their precept.

The video features Deputy Leader Maurice Heaster talking about it. You’ll note that one way we keep council tax low is by avoiding unnecessary expenditure on things like microphones.

Last week I touched on the Labour gimmick of freezing council tax in the eight London boroughs they control and suggested that, actually, if you wanted value and quality services you were better sticking with Conservative authorities that already had a track record.

I failed to mention yesterday the Boris Johnson has again frozen the GLA’s budget. The second year he’s done it and, no coincidence, the second year he’s controlled the budget!

Compare this with Labour’s Ken Livingstone, who managed to double what he took from you over his eight years in office.

Today’s news that all the Labour councils in London are to freeze council tax next year (I say all, they only have eight) came as something of a shock.

First of all, I don’t think London Labour have a particularly good track record of keeping council tax low. If you take the inner London Labour boroughs at band D they charge an average of £1,276. Conservative authorities charge an average of just £899. And those bald figures hide other facts. The most expensive Conservative borough, Hammersmith and Fulham has only been Conservative controlled since 2006, and in each year since then has actually reduced the council tax. And I would hope I don’t need to point out that Wandsworth has the lowest council tax in the country.

But what really gets me is that all eight find themselves in a position to declare no increase, when a year ago almost to the day they all rejected exactly that suggestion.

Conservative policy is to freeze council tax for the first two years of an administration. A popular policy you might think… but not, unfortunately, with London’s Labour councils who all declared they would not participate.

Apparently when the Conservatives suggested it (along with extra funding to help councils manage the freeze) such a freeze would result in “years of misery” as Labour leader’s across the capital second guessed what funding they would get from central government. This year, however, at exactly the same place in the budget setting process, with no promise of cash from the government they can all announce a freeze as a celebration of Labour efficiency.

The only conclusion you can draw is that when it comes to using council tax to buy a few votes for the beleaguered Prime Minister different rules apply.

Battersea In TouchWe are currently in the process of distributing the latest issue of ‘In Touch’, our consitutency wide paper.

If you prefer paperless, you can download a copy by following this link (543kb).

The issue contains:

  • Zero council tax increase this year
  • A message from Wandsworth Council Leader Edward Lister
  • Boris tackles City Hall waste to deliver tax freeze this year
  • What Wandsworth is doing to help combat the recession
  • David Cameron on the change our country needs

I’ve blogged and Tweeted at length about the council tax setting, and I’m aware that there’s only so many ways that you can announce we’re keeping tax at last year’s levels…published a YouTube video of Maurice Heaster, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Corporate Resources talking about the announcement. I’m really pleased, not just because of the council tax, but because it’s the start of some experimentation with other ways of communicating. It doesn’t have Hollywood production values (this is Wandsworth) but here it is:

It also prompts me to think about publishing a video I started doing some weeks ago about the council’s crime priorities. I’ll have to dig it out and see if I can re-watch without cringing!

Wandsworth council chamber, Mayor's chair and crestLabour did not cover themselves in glory at last night’s meeting.

You would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?  But actually I’m rather disappointed in them.  I expected a coherent set of arguments and reasoned alternative budget from them.  Instead, it seemed every time one of them stood up to speak we got a slightly different line, and that is slightly worrying – for one because it’s always good to have a strong opposition.

“Raise tax, no, lower it, no, raise it.”
The council presented a strong budget.  We are keeping the council tax at the same level as last year, because of savings we have made we are still able to increase spending and put some money into contingency.  Perfectly sensible given that a lot of people are expecting a prolonged recession and worse times to come.  But, of course, you can argue if that’s the right thing.  If you think the recession is going to be short and shallow you might think extra spending or a cut in tax preferable.

It was clear the Labour party hadn’t decided what they thought was best.  Their formal amendment suggested putting nothing into contingency, creating about 50 jobs for a year (by my count, Tony Belton, their leader, put it at 30) and reviewing charging levels for various services.  But during the course of the evening some of the members suggested the contingency could be used to cut council tax, some suggested that taxes should be higher so spending could increase, one – during the course of his contribution – suggested we should both lower and raise council tax.  They may have put a formal amendment to council, but it seemed they’d not agreed it amongst themselves.

Big state to the rescue?
But it was also clear they were convinced that a big state could solve all problems.  One of their Tooting councillors complained bitterly that the council were, only now, cleaning up Tooting’s alleyways and attempted to give credit for this to Sadiq Khan.  Yes, we are cleaning up the alleyways as part of Tooting Together, but these are private alleyways, owned by the businesses that are frequently dumping the rubbish on them.  We are stepping in and cleaning up because the owners have not taken responsibility – but somehow the council is the bad guy on this one.

And dog fouling raised its ugly head.  It seems Labour believe the council doesn’t have the country’s largest dog control unit in the country, but actually have the country’s biggest state-owned pack of hounds, specially trained to go and foul our pavements.  Again, a fundamental belief that problems are not shared by the community but there to be solved by the state.  The idea that somehow a dog fouling the pavement is the council’s fault rather than the owner’s or even the dog’s is risible, but somehow this was trotted out as an argument against the council’s budget.

To be honest, the most coherent solution put forward was by Tony Belton: it’s like the 1930s, he reasoned, and that wasn’t solved by Keynes, but by 10 years of depression and a world war. So this is Brown’s plan B! I haven’t been able to divine any other plan from Labour either locally or nationally, and I might rest easier if I knew they had some ideas rather than the current floundering.

It’s up to all of us
Implicit in the council’s budget, and in the council’s recession response, is that we help people to help themselves.  Perhaps we do not push that enough, and Malcolm Grimston made a thoughtful contribution to evening (probably the most thoughtful speech of the night) highlighting that, actually, many the solution to many problems lies not with the council or government, but very simple actions by ordinary people.  Of course it’s right for the council to help, and it was shameful for the Labour party to vote against our recession support, but we need to be aware that we all can play a part.

It might yet prove that one of the benefits of recession and environmental crisis is that we all come out of it a bit more thoughtful of our impact on our communities.

Last night I Tweeted from Wandsworth’s council tax setting meeting. You can see the Tweets in my last post. As with anything in life, it’s worth a little bit of reflection.

Why I did it
It seemed a worthy experiment, but beyond that I can’t give any really good reasons. I’d seen a few examples of it happening elsewhere, but hadn’t seen any examples that I thought had ‘worked’; none had members of the public had responded or engaged during the meeting, and they seemed one way.  Obviously I don’t know how much interaction took place via direct message or after the event.  I’m sure someone can point me to an example where it did work.

How it went – Engagement
Was it successful ‘engagement’? Did people actually read it? I think the answer is yes. There were at least 4 Wandsworth residents reading and Tweeting during the meeting, and at least one afterwards. It’s obviously impossible to tell how many others read but did not Tweet about it.

Admittedly 4 is not a huge number, but it’s also 4 more than you usually get in the public gallery at a meeting. The argument I would make is that anything that increases involvement and engagement is a good thing. I rather suspect that, overall, far more residents will read those Tweets than will read the council’s minutes.

But do people really want to be involved in the formal decision making processes of the council. This is where I have doubts, last night perhaps had a certain novelty value – but given that hardly anyone bothers with the public gallery isn’t that a message that residents look for their engagement elsewhere, perhaps where they can interact and have their say rather than just listening to councillors?

How it went – doing it
It was much harder work than I expected. There is, clearly, a skill to summarising in 140 characters, giving a flavour of the meeting but not overloading followers with unnecessary Tweets. Perhaps I don’t have that skill, because it took effort to keep the Tweets up to date, respond to incoming Tweets and follow the discussions.

I was speaking in the debate on the council’s response to the recession and decided not to Tweet so I could concentrate on what was being said and plan what I was going to say in response. The consequence was that the most interesting discussion of the evening went untwittered.

Will I do it again?
Probably not. I don’t expect huge waves of disappointment, it was an interesting experiment but not one I’m planning on repeating.

My view would change if there were other councillors, even from the other side, to share the load, but as (currently) the council’s lone Twitterer it is quite a burden. It definitely does change your view and approach to the meeting and leaves you a little detached while you analyse and think of Tweets and that was something I didn’t enjoy.

Additionally, I suspect I might have breached the council’s standing orders by Tweeting during the meeting!

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, you can always comment below, contact me or even follow me on Twitter.