Across the country families are facing substantial council tax rises. As a Conservative, I believe in low taxation and keeping bills as low as possible for taxpayers. And as a Conservative, I will always campaign against any unnecessary rises in tax for hardworking families.
As Lady Thatcher said in 1977, “Our aim is to make tax-collecting a declining industry.” This goes to the very heart of what our Conservative philosophy is all about, and yet many Conservative councils across the country are opting to go against this core mission.
Thousands of parish and town councils in England have recently increased their share of the annual council tax bill and raised £18.9m in extra funds. For example, Endon with Stanley Parish Council voted to increase the precept by 2.35%, with only myself voting against it on principle. Our neighbours in Bagnall Parish Council made the right decision not to increase their precept at all.
Figures show that 3,659 parish councils raised the basic Band D tax bill by more than 1.99%. Sixty small authorities at least doubled residents' bills last year. Another 130 put their bills up by between 50 and 99% while 1,001 increased the annual bill for a Band D home by £5 or more.
Parish and town councils are not subject to the referendum threshold of 2%. Larger authorities and other bodies, such as Police and Crime Commissioners, are legally obliged to hold a referendum if they want a rise of 2% or more, or would raise bills by more than £5 per year per household. Last year the Chancellor changed this rule for larger councils. The threshold can now rise to 3.99% as long as most of the increase funds adult social care.
Many parish councils are now planning large percentage increases for 2016-17 in order to take on a range of services which some councils cannot afford to run anymore such as libraries, toilets, youth work, community buildings and economic development activity.
To give you a few examples: Newquay Town Council will put its council tax precept up 90%, Frodsham Town Council in Cheshire is increasing its precept by 50%, and the largest percentage rise in parish council tax precepts is an eye-watering one at almost 1,200%.
The number of local residents who attend parish council meetings often remains in the low single figures. Most parish councils don’t have to hold elections as not enough people put themselves forward as candidates. In addition, their meetings aren’t live screamed via an online video like those of district and county councils. This lack of accountability means that it is a lot easier for parish councils to get away with increasing council tax, without any political pressure.
This is a travesty for local democracy. Under the Coalition government, many councils were rightly stopped from increasing council tax by 2% or more without first holding a referendum, but the rules do not apply to parish and town councils. The proposed rise in the limit for a referendum to 3.99%, will mean that the average household will pay an extra £50 on top of what they already pay.
On a brighter note, our Conservative-controlled Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, under the excellent leadership of Councillor Sybil Ralphs MBE, has just frozen council tax for the seventh year in a row. Stoke-On-Trent City, now under the control of the Conservatives and City Independents, also made the right decision to freeze council tax. Sadly, Staffordshire County Council are taking the wrong path by increasing their share of the council tax by 3.95% from April, after councillors approved the rise last week.
What we need is for councils to put measures in place to ensure that high quality public services are provided in a way that meets the continuously changing needs of residents in a fast-paced society, at the lowest possible cost. I encourage all of our local authorities to read some of the excellent documents produced by the Taxpayers’ Alliance who give some great examples of how this can be done successfully.
We also need true democracy restoring to our communities by the Government extending the referendum threshold to parish and town councils so that they can no longer arrogantly increase our council tax bills without our consent.
Joe Porter is a Parish Councillor in Staffordshire Moorlands, Chairman of Staffordshire Moorlands Conservative Future and the President of Keele Students for Britain. He studies Marketing and Politics at Keele University, where he is a Trustee of Keele Student Union.