Rebalancing Britain

Martin Stott

The Scottish referendum campaign is having an interesting knock-on impact on English political debate. The position and dominance of London – the place Scots most dislike about the United Kingdom in its present form – is being looked at more critically. There have been a couple of think tank reports recently, but the debate has moved quite a way beyond the narrow audiences that these reports usually attract. That in itself is a reflection of the way the ground is shifting.

First out of the blocks was the Centre for Cities’ ‘Cities Outlook 2014’ report. The document is mainly pretty dry, though jazzes up with unusual graphics and some different takes on the issues. Basically it is saying that London has become super dominant in the UK economy, so much so that four out of five private sector jobs are created in London and that every major city outside the South East is losing young people to London with one in three 22-30 year olds ending up there. Put another way, London accounted for ten times as many private sector jobs as any other city and also saw a growth in public sector jobs as well. By contrast Bradford, Sheffield, Bristol, Southampton, Blackpool and Glasgow all saw employment shrink in both the public and private sectors.

All this is very much backed up by word done for the Core Cities group (Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield) who have initiated an Independent City Growth Commission chaired by Jim O’Neill, the Manchester born ex- Goldman Sachs Chief Executive. Their focus is on how to make Britain less focused on London in order to promote higher levels of national growth and create a less divided nation. Their plan is to issue a final report in the autumn in an attempt to set the agenda for the period leading up to the 2015 General Election. Essentially, the Core Cities interim report ‘metro growth: the UK’s economic opportunity’ argues that cities outside the South east need to be built into larger economic zones with better connections between them to create bigger markets and the kind of economies of scale for business that are to be found in London and the South East.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Evan Davis has been busying himself on a very similar topic. His mini-series ‘Mind the gap: London vs the rest’ on BBC 2 looked at how London manages to earn more than one fifth of Britain’s income and continues to pull away in terms of growth and development while other regions still feel the sting of recession. Davis had some jolly japes in tall cranes and large diggers across London in search of the answers to his questions, but he knew that one very important answer was staring him in the face: public investment in intrastructure. Transport infrastructure investment is currently running at £5000 per person pa in London (think Cross Rail) and just £700 per person pa in the English regions.

Slightly perversely Davis took his viewers to visit the centre of his proposed new city-region-to-challenge-London: Hebden Bridge. But of course he had a point and it was that Hebden Bridge is in the centre of a huge potential city region stretching across England from Liverpool to Hull via Manchester and Leeds. Hebden Bridge is in the middle of this city region in the Pennines, rather winningly described by one of its residents as the city centre with an ‘inverted green belt’ – and places like Manchester and Leeds as its ‘suburbs’. This is far from outlandish. This part of the north of England really did challenge London for economic supremacy in the 19th century with its coal, steel and cotton as well as ports to export to the Empire.

But can it be revived as an economic counter-balance to London? That seems to depend on political will and a desire to invest in the area, especially its transport infrastructure. The Centre for Cities report makes a telling comparison. While acknowledging that the combined economies of Leeds and Manchester are just one fifth the size of London, it argues that they are unlikely to make the best of this combined scale because of ‘weak transport links’ citing ‘the distance between Leeds and Manchester is around 30% shorter than between Cambridge and London, yet the quickest train takes four minutes longer’. Jim O’Neill makes a similar point in an Observer interview about HS2, which he thinks will exacerbate the problem and simply make Birmingham a suburb of London, arguing that the money should be spent instead on creating a web of good links in the north: ‘In my judgement, for the national economy, that is way more important than improving the speed of the link from London to any of these places’.

Improving transport links in a new ‘super city’ is one dimension, but a couple of other factors are worthy of mention as well. London is the financial, political and cultural capital of the UK. This doesn’t give a lot of space for other cities to shine, unlike in say Germany with Frankfurt as its financial capital, Berlin as its political capital and Hamburg as its cultural capital. The same is true in Italy (Rome/Milan) and the USA, amongst others. Moving Whitehall and Westminster out of London would do them a power of good. If Scotland stays in the UK, the British Parliament could meet in London occasionally, but the four ‘nations’ would have Parliaments of their own in other cities.

More prosaically, the Centre for Cities report suggests that all the core cities should have access to the same policy powers as London has, i.e. strategic planning powers, powers over the budget for its transport system and police force, and a super-city wide elected assembly and directly elected mayor. A revival of regional identity and local government could yet come out of these debates, and not before time.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government.

The English question

Martin Stott

It is worth contemplating the possibility of a scenario in which Scotland votes for independence in September and a new Government holds an ‘in/out’ referendum on the remainder of the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017 – and the vote produces an ‘out’ result.  Whether it is of the social democratic variety espoused by the SNP in Scotland, or the populist nationalism of UKIP in England, nationalism is having a profound effect on British politics.  Contested membership of the EU and the salience of immigration in the political debate are two examples of where political parties’ responses are fumbling and confused, and were these two referenda to result in Scottish independence and a British exit from the EU, the shocks  to the existing political system would be enormous.

What has this got to do with local government? The reality is that Britain has an extraordinary concentration of political and economic power in London and whatever their result, the impact of these referenda only serves to reinforce that position. None of the major political parties are seriously thinking about any kind of constitutional settlement which addresses the issue. There is a long tradition of parties praising local government to the skies in opposition and promising all kinds of devolution of powers and local taxation when they come to power, only for this to be forgotten the moment they actually obtain power.

This is particularly striking in relation to local tax raising powers. The proposed ‘mansion tax’ – a very poor substitute for a council tax revaluation (let’s not go down the path of the regressive nature of the council tax itself just now) will of course be collected by the Treasury and not local government. Labour has always seen the Treasury as a force for good, especially in the Brown era – think public expenditure and tax credits amongst other things. But the power of the Treasury combined with the influence and economic power of London and the City in particular, has hugely distorted the social and economic balance of England and the rest of the UK.

This sense of being ignored by metropolitan elites has certainly driven the rise in support for UKIP and a more general disenchantment with politics generally, where a cynical view that the elite looks after its own has been confirmed for some by the scramble for parliamentary seats by the sons of Labour grandees (think Stephen Kinnock, Will Straw and David Prescott).

A crisis of legitimacy is developing in England where the kind of top-down statism perceived to come from Whitehall and Westminster is exacerbated both by current government policies and by the dysfunctional and systematic inequality generated by markets  and inequitable public service provision over many years, both of  which have their roots in a culture of ‘Whitehall knows best’. The problem is that a lot of people don’t agree with that any more (if they ever did) and the problem for political parties is that voters are expressing that at the ballot box, where support for the major parties is ebbing away by the day, whether it be to nationalists, UKIP, independents, or simply by not voting at all.

Many Conservatives would dispute the idea that they were a party that supported the long arm of the state. But folks in local government know better. Whether it is Eric Pickles sounding off about waste collections systems (a subject he has been mercifully silent on recently) or the wickedness of councils raising revenue through ‘excessive’ parking charges, as he caps council tax rises at 2% and then decides that councils aren’t playing the game if they raise them by 1.99% and proposes that they should be capped at 1.5% in future, micro-management of local government is what Whitehall loves doing most. That is of course when it isn’t wriggling out of George Osborne’s public expenditure cuts by loading them onto errr…local government.  National Trust Chairman Simon Jenkins encapsulated this in a recent article in which he pointed out that in reality the really big loser in the recent rounds of austerity has been local government who have ‘…borne the lion’s share of the burden so as to relieve Whitehall budgets of real pain.’

The rising resentment of many outside the corridors of power about the absence of a political voice and accompanying economic levers for many different English communities is fuelling this splintering of political support and adding to the crisis of legitimacy. Yet there is plenty of evidence that complex policy challenges ranging from entrenched pockets of social disadvantage and isolation, the resource implications of a combination of long term care for the elderly and obesity and other lifestyle diseases amongst younger people, or the impacts of catastrophic climate change, are best addressed at local level, a reality briefly acknowledged  in the dying days of the Brown Government through its ‘Total Place‘ programme.

The idea of devolving more economic and political power across England is hardly a new one and a few nugatory experiments such as the Regional Development Agencies have been tried and dropped. Lots of politicians in all political parties pay lip service to the idea that the public realm means more than just the central state, but if this crisis of legitimacy isn’t to start taking an uglier form, a road map of how power will be devolved  to cities and counties in the next few years is urgently needed. A satisfactory answer to the ‘English Question’ presses, as these referenda loom, and whatever their outcomes it won’t go away any more.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government.

Fracking: the latest challenge in the Tory heartlands

Martin  Stott

The hot days of July finally saw the debates around the implications of ‘fracking’ of unconventional hydro-carbons in the UK reach out and grab the attention of the national media. As Tory grandee Lord Howell called for the process to be focussed on the ‘desolate North’ (he corrected the initial impression that he was referring to the North East by saying that he really meant the North West) and  Energy Minister Michael Fallon was reported in the Mail on Sunday as warning that fracking was likely to face fierce resistance from the middle classes in Conservative heartlands, as if to prove his point dozens of protesters were arrested at an exploratory drilling site near the village of Balcombe in West Sussex.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking – the process of drilling and then injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to  fracture shale rocks to release natural gas, has caused a revolution in energy policy in the USA where gas prices have dropped dramatically as gas from fracking particularly in North Dakota, and more controversially Pennsylvania, has come on stream. Coal has suddenly seemed a dirty and expensive option and as a consequence carbon emissions from the world’s biggest economy have dropped significantly.

Can the trick be repeated in the UK? The Coalition Government is betting the farm –  quite a  few farms actually – that it can. Chancellor George Osborne announced in this year’s Budget that fracking companies would receive tax allowances for developing gas fields and would be able to offset expenditure on exploration against tax for ten years.The next tax avoidance scandal perhaps. Best known and a pioneer in the field is Cuadrilla (referred to by some opponents as ‘Godzilla’) whose explorations in Lancashire have amongst other things led to a couple of minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011. But there are quite a few other companies across the country as the official estimate for UK reserves is 37 trillion cubic metres of shale gas in the north of England and geologists have yet to quantify reserves in the south.

But it is Balcombe in rural West Sussex which is becoming the test bed for what this means for energy experts, planners, campaigners and politicians. Campaign group Don’t Frack with the Fylde certainly raised the issues and those earthquakes, 1.5 and 2.3 in magnitude respectively, shook confidence in the safety of the technology (let’s face it: who notices in North Dakota where the  nearest house is 60 miles away?) but the opposition in southern England is having a greater impact on politicians and opinion formers. The Mail on Sunday’s  report of Sevenoaks MP Michael Fallon’s private briefing on fracking reported him as saying of potential well-heeled protesters ‘We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive.’ He admitted that exploratory drilling was likely to spread the length and breadth of southern England saying ‘The second area [after the North West] being studied is the Weald. It’s from Dorset all the way along through Hampshire, Sussex… all the way a bit into Surrey and even into my own county of Kent.’

This focus on the lusher parts of the South East which has started at Balcombe is going to be a real concern for Conservative strategists. The ‘Noting Hill set’ has repeatedly been accused of ignoring its rural base as proposals ranging from the sell-off of forests, to wind farm policies, changes in planning laws, opposition to which has been championed by the Daily Telegraph, and the HS2 rail route through the Chilterns have all been seen as a slap in the face for this rural base, many of whom have gravitated towards UKIP. But the Greens too have a presence in the South East, with their charismatic MP Caroline Lucas representing a Sussex seat, an MEP for the region and their only council, Brighton and Hove, only a few miles away.

Meanwhile up in Whitehall, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been ruminating on what to do about the planning and land use implications of promoting the fracking revolution and on 19 July it spoke,  issuing guidance  to local planning authorities. The guidance stresses that fracking could be a vital source of energy, saying ‘Mineral extraction is essential to local and national economies… minerals planning authorities should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction including to the economy when determining planning applications.’ It goes on to explicitly exclude any attempts by planning authorities to trade off fracking with renewable developments saying, ‘Mineral planning authorities should not consider  demand for or consider alternatives to oil and gas resources when  determining planning applications.’ Because of the scale and strategic nature of minerals planning applications these have remained a planning function of county councils, still Tory controlled in southern England.

It  remains to be seen if DCLG will allow a level of discretion in determining these applications by county planning authorities which could well limit or even stop fracking in its tracks in the south, or whether  as would be possible using potential secondary legislation  under the Growth and Infrastructure Act, it could take applications for  fracking for shale gas  out of the hands of county councils and instead have them decided by the Secretary of State as  part of the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. On the one hand it could bow to Tory pressure in the shires and allow all the developments to happen ‘up north’ by default as counties refuse most if not all applications. On the other, it may decide to take the risk, strip counties of their power and pull shale gas development permissions back into Whitehall. Only time, and a bit of local politics in the home counties, will tell.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government. He is National Policy Adviser on minerals planning for the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue: is ‘Blue Labour’ part of the left response to the rise of UKIP?

Martin Stott

It is a commonplace for commentators to say that the recent success of UKIP in the shire elections poses a threat to Labour as well as the Tories. There is some truth in this, but a strand of thinking in the Labour Party has been grappling with some of the issues UKIP poses from a left perspective for several years. This is referred to as ‘Blue Labour’.

Essentially it is a critique of both Old and New Labour. It understands that the relentless progress of the last Labour Governments caused many Labour supporters to feel as if their communities had been left soulless. It recognises that Labour developed a top-down style of government and is critical of its neo-liberal view of the world – globalisation understood entirely on terms set by finance capital. Instead it focuses on a different approach to socialism, stressing communitarianism, self reliance and mutuality.

The debate has been driven by the credibility of many of those leading it, most notably the Labour MP and Milliband’s policy review chief, John Cruddas and cultural studies professor, Jonathan Rutherford. They set out the Blue Labour stall thus:

“…today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no one. It champions humanity in general but no one in particular. It favours multi-culturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values, but nothing specific. Over the past decade it has failed to give form to a common life, to speak for it and defend it against the forces of unaccountable corporate power and state intrusion”.

A lot of people on the left can relate to that and the ‘Blue Labour’ argument is essentially that the loss by Labour of over five million votes between 1997 and 2010 is a reflection of this, encapsulated in Tony Blair’s famous 2004 comment “Leave the past to those who live in it”.

The problem with that mind-set is that this view of Labour supporters certainly does resonate with UKIP recruits from Labour. Recent focus groups of UKIP supporters when, after rehearsing a lengthy catalogue of things they didn’t like were asked what they did like about Britain, reportedly responded, ‘The past’. Cruddas’s summary of the trajectory of New Labour under Blair is:

“At its best New Labour encompassed both the progressive and the traditional, captured in Tony Blair’s, early recognition of the need for a ‘modern patriotism’. Over time however, it became all about the ‘progressive new’. By the end it embraced a dystopian destructive neo-liberalism cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour”.

What ‘Blue Labour’ is trying to articulate is a direction of travel that is different from a ‘progressive’ politics that uncritically embraces globalisation, neo-liberalism, consumerism and a market economy that leaves great swathes of the population behind and whose guiding principles were graphically exposed by the banking crisis of 2008.

By contrast, the current Government is a constant source of dismay to its supporters as it takes its admiration of all things ‘Blairite’ to new heights, with its attempts to flog off parts of English common life to the highest bidder, forests, waterways, parks, the Post Office, sport and culture, not to mention that national institution, the National Health Service. Hence the mass defections to UKIP from the Tories

By contrast ‘Blue Labour’ is attempting to create a polity through a set of values rooted in relationships – reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity and co-operation rather than the managerial, the bureaucratic and the corporate. It is not just a critique of New Labour though – Blue Labour is not that keen on Old Labour either.

As long ago as 1952, Richard Crossman in an article entitled “Towards a philosophy of Socialism” recognised that the post-war project, the creation of the Welfare State, the triumph of Fabianism, took for granted that politics was the business of maximising general happiness through social planning.

However a welfare state administered centrally in Whitehall sapped the life blood of the Labour Movement. “Before 1945, for hundreds of thousands of active trade unionists and party workers, socialism was a way of life and a vocation”. Now (and this was in 1952!), it seemed that it was exclusively the business of politicians at Westminster acting through an unreformed civil service. Those activists who had previously helped run municipal “gas and water socialism” were given “no vision of new socialist responsibilities”. ‘Blue Labour’ takes a similar view and indeed a deep scepticism of the Welfare State seems to be one of its defining features.

Navigating a credible path between a critique of the Welfare State, hostility to globalisation and neo-conservative economics, and a potentially reactionary nostalgia, is not easy. Labour’s traditions of solidarity, at their best, have been cross-class, cross-generational, cross-gender and cross-national. That is why the bust-ups over immigration prompted by the comments of the original exponent of ‘Blue Labour’ Maurice Glasman (enobled by Ed Miliband in 2011), hurt. It is also true that the ‘flag, faith and family’ tag has more than a hint of not just nationalism, but patriarchy. Some have denounced its perceived conservatism as a ‘Janet and John’ 1950’s style approach to family life. But the Labour Movement has a ‘tradition’ that embraces feminism, internationalism and more recently, multiculturalism. In this regard, ‘Blue Labour’ needs to be a lot more nuanced than current public perception of it.

It has also been criticised for having no coherent economic policy. Certainly talk of limiting the market, bemoaning the “commodification of human beings” and the promotion of regional banks and ‘city parliaments’, doesn’t constitute an economic policy. But unlike the “Big Society”, a shameless Tory ‘borrowing’ of the narratives of community and mutuality, ‘Blue Labour’ is not utterly silent on the market.

Whatever we think of the specific prescriptions that have emerged so far, what we are seeing with ‘Blue Labour’ is a return of something that was repressed under New Labour. Labour is once more talking about class and ideology and from that, some constructive new thinking and a credible response to the UKIP threat, should emerge.


Martin Stott has been an INLOGOV Associate since 2012. He joined INLOGOV after a 25 year career in local government, both as an elected member and as a senior officer.

Responsibility without power: some futures for local government

Martin Stott

There was a really good April Fool this year from green think tank the Green Alliance announcing the abolition of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Apart from the clue in the date of the blog, it didn’t take long to realise that it was a jape because of the wonderful comment about how Whitehall didn’t need to guide local government any more as they ‘can’t any longer tell council how to raise or spend money.’ Pull the other one! It’s just as well though that the Green Alliance pranksters didn’t take the opposite tack and instead announce the abolition of local government itself. Plenty of people would have been taken in by that and admittedly probably briefly, panic would have ensued.

This little diversion did bring to mind the recent Capita report ‘Planning into uncertainty; four futures for local government’. It is well worth reflecting on these scenarios as the local elections for county and unitary authorities come round, as none of them make pretty reading, either for prospective new members or particularly, for their political parties. The report author Jonathan Flowers sets out four futures which he terms ‘national delivery’, ‘delivery for place’, ‘local government bypass’ and ‘smaller spider, bigger web’.

stott table apr 13

Source: Capita

The view in the report is one looking back from 2022 and it takes a look at two of the sources of uncertainty that will have a fundamental impact on local government:
• Will the mood of localism continue or will we see a centralising retrenchment?
• Will local government be given more powers and a wider remit or will it be gradually chipped away?
It assumes that there is an ‘austerity decade’ which sees local government cut its costs dramatically over the first five years and ‘how its share of the public purse declined even more in the five years after that’.

From a local government practitioners point of view ‘smaller spider, bigger web’ sounds the most promising and Flowers reports that it is what ‘much of the thinking in local government generally seems to be about’. It is much the most optimistic scenario where as the name suggests, there is a more ‘localised and growing remit for local government’ where local authorities are very much at the centre of managing complexity. With councils needing to be even more in touch with their local communities at ground level in order to maintain a local ecosystem of healthy organisations that are happy and able to work together, elected members assume a kind of community organiser-cum-networker role for their locality. As the report comments it would be a ‘very fulfilling but quite demanding’ role, but with a very limited role for the political parties. Councillors as local champions, not party champions, all the more so if they had their own distributed budget allocations.

The other scenarios have a much more marginal role for councillors. ‘Delivery for place – a centralised and growing role for local government’ sounds promising but the reality of this is ‘local government becomes the head office of a local public service conglomerate’ or to my mind, local administration, not local government. The scenario rather generously assumes the role of members will be ‘an ambiguous one’. Actually it will be a highly technocratic environment. The report finally comes clean admitting ‘As the effective power of members diminishes, the power of the senior officer team and especially the chief executive will grow significantly.’ This scenario builds upon a lot of what the last government had in mind. ‘Local government bypass – a localised declining role for local government’ is described as ‘not a pleasant world for local government’. It is about managing decline. If it is done well and local authorities successfully compete for business against other entities (private sector, third sector, quangos) members will become a bit like non-executive directors. Not a bad place for some, but it won’t require many members and not much store will be set by political skills.

Finally what I suspect many in local government would see as the doomsday scenario, ‘national commissioning’ – a centralised, declining role for local government’. Here, local government lacks the capacity and resources to engage and all kinds of current functions are removed from it, from highways maintenance (to the Highways Agency) to a new national agency for environmental health and trading standards to promote growth by giving a national level playing field for business. As the departure of schools from local authority control demonstrates, this hardly constitutes blue-sky thinking. In this scenario some authorities successfully win local delivery contracts from these national organisations, but quite a few others have virtually disappeared ‘providing democratic services for a group of members who have less and less influence on their area.’ It’s hard to think of a sadder ending.

The report rightly says that all these scenarios are extreme cases and that in practice bits of all four are likely to come to pass. Fair comment, but not a very enticing prospect for prospective members. I’d like to add one further dollop of gloom to the mix. My scenario five. This is ‘local government as deliverer of difficult decisions’. There are plenty of things Whitehall would like to get as far away from Ministerial desks and responsibility as possible, and local government remains a convienient dumping ground for many of them. The most obvious is the whole package of welfare reforms. Under the guise of ‘localisation’, the devolution of difficult decisions about whether to charge benefits recipients council tax or cut services, how to manage budgets when the benefits budget has been devolved minus 10% but with protection for large groups such as pensioners, are already under way. The care of elderly people is another expensive hot potato and as climate change apparently takes hold more rapidly than anticipated, responsibility for expensive flood control and other adaptation measures looks ripe for localisation too. Welcome newly elected members, responsibility without power awaits you.


Martin Stott has been an INLOGOV Associate since 2012. He joined INLOGOV after a 25 year career in local government, both as an elected member and as a senior officer.

Council tax: the new poll tax

Martin Stott

The Poll Tax riots in 1990 famously brought down Mrs Thatcher and led to the hasty introduction of the Council Tax. Twenty three years later are the reforms to Council Tax (due for implementation in less than a month) about to bring the Poll Tax back from the grave?

From 1 April, instead of the current 5.9 million recipients of Council Tax Benefit (CTB) receiving cash to cover all or most of their bill, as part of the Government’s policy to roll back and cut the cost of the welfare state the fund for CBT will be cut by 10%. At the same time the Government has localised the system, transferring responsibility for it from Government to the 326 local authorities responsible for Council Tax collection.

From April, in order to balance their budgets, councils will be faced with maintaining current levels of support and making greater cuts elsewhere, removing other exemptions. The most commonly cited is Council Tax (CT) exemption on second homes, or asking those who currently don’t pay CT or only pay a very small amount, to pay. As the date for this change looms, it seems that the vast majority of councils will opt for the latter. The calculations are made particularly tricky by the Government’s stipulation that current levels of support must be maintained for pensioners – meaning that the burden will fall entirely on the working-age poor.

The Resolution Foundation has published a report setting out exactly what all this means. If you are poor and not a pensioner, it doesn’t look pretty. Just as important though, if you are a local authority, especially one with quite a few claimants and not many second homes to tax, the financial implications look terrifying.

With 5.9 million recipients, Council Tax Benefit is claimed by more households than any other means tested benefit or tax credit. On 1 April it will be replaced by 326 ‘Council Tax Support Schemes’. The Resolution Foundation report shows that almost three quarters of English local authorities are planning to respond to this localisation by introducing less generous systems of support.

For individuals and their families the implications of this are huge. The effect of this new localisation of council tax support will see many of the 2.5 million working-age recipients of CTB who are not in employment, i.e. those who receive maximum CTB and pay no council tax, having to pay something. Depending on the wealth of the locality they live in and importantly the number of exempt pensioners, the figures are likely to vary between £100 and over £300 per annum with an average of £247pa. North Hertfordshire has already announced a figure of £322.40 pa and Birmingham, Britain’s biggest local authority, has announced a minimum charge of £200 pa. One of the reasons for the variation is the exclusion of pensioners from the charges. This immediately increases the apparently marginal 10% to an average 19% reduction for working age recipients, and in some areas with high proportions of pensioners this rises to 33%.

This is all in a context where Universal Credit is introduced in October with as yet unknown implications, but with a computer system that probably isn’t up to the job; benefits increases capped at 1% pa for the next three years – a real terms cut; the ‘bedroom tax’ just about to kick in and food banks springing up all over the country. Figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported in the Resolution Foundation report show that the average working family will lose £165 pa from these changes and the average non-working family will lose £215pa. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this combination of pressures will have huge impacts on low income families and individuals, and that paying Council Tax won’t be anywhere near their top priority.

The implications for local authorities and their finances are almost as stark as those of individuals. While the average of £247pa sounds, and is, a lot for poor households, collecting £4.75 a week is likely to prove uneconomic for local authorities, especially if collection attempts go as far as hiring bailiffs or going to court. Work by the campaign group False Economy has found that more than 70 councils are resigned to seeing swaths of residents refusing to pay the tax. Harlow council is expecting to get barely one sixth of its 5,000 poor households paying up and is budgeting for a £1.14m shortfall in its finances in 2013/14. Gravesham is expecting only a 30% payment rate. Most councils are more optimistic, but the False Economy work suggests that overall, councils are expecting one third of those who are supposed to pay, won’t.

Ministers are planning to save £500m by cutting and localising the CTB bill. But even Conservative former ministers are sounding alarm bells. Patrick Jenkin, a key architect of the poll Tax, told the BBC last year:

‘The Poll Tax was introduced with the proposition that everybody should pay something….. we got it wrong. The same factor will apply here, that there will be large numbers of fairly poor households who have hitherto been protected from Council tax who are going to be asked to pay small sums’.

Faced between the choice of heating their homes (ever more expensively), feeding their families, or paying £247 per annum in Council Tax, which is likely to go first? In trying to save £500m a year, the new arrangements look like causing huge financial problems for many councils and bad publicity for Government as these councils try to chase non-payers through the courts, that only that kind of money can buy. Welcome to the New Poll Tax.


Martin Stott has been an INLOGOV Associate since 2012. He joined INLOGOV after a 25 year career in local government, both as an elected member and as a senior officer.