Is it possible that any local council would have the nerve to combine the following?
- The second highest council tax rises in the country
- One of the country’s highest spends per resident on senior salaries
- One of the country’s lowest spends per resident on library facilities
As a short report I have authored shows, the answer is yes - and the culprit is Labour-run Darlington Council. Data from DCLG, from local authorities’ accounts (compiled by the TaxPayers’ Alliance), and from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, all point to an appalling set of priorities from the local Labour Group.
Labour in Darlington have introduced the second highest council tax increases in the country since 2010 – more than 351 other local authorities.
At 14%, council tax has risen almost three times as fast as the national average of 5%. This costs the average band D house an extra £14 a month or £163 a year.
If Labour had increased council tax by the average of 5% rather than 14%, this would have saved band D households in Darlington £105 a year.
Where has the money been spent? Given the borough’s small population, a disproportionately high amount of it is spend on senior officer salaries.
Darlington Council ranks 7th highest in the country (out of 145 councils) in how much it spends per resident on the Chief Executive. Darlington spends £1.69 per resident on the Chief Executive compared to an average of £0.57 across England.
Darlington Council also ranks #1 highest in the country (out of 102 councils for which data is available) in how much it spends per resident on the Director of Public Health. Darlington Council spends £1.05 per resident on the Director of Public Health compared to an average of £0.45 across England.
One place the money hasn’t been spent is front line services like libraries. Recent data consistently rank Darlington near the very bottom of over 130 local authorities in spending per resident on library services. In 2014/15, 111th out of 132. The previous year Darlington was 126th and the year before that 131st.
Worse, Labour now plan to close the town’s main library and move the books into a leisure centre and a multi storey car park. For the last twelve months, they have been in a heated battle with local residents over these proposals. Until September, they were complacent and refused to listen to local groups and petitions against the decision. But behind the scenes, I engaged with a number of local groups and found a top public law barrister to judicially review the decision.
The council delayed their closure as soon as their weak legal position became clear. They now face challenges to the decision from the local Conservative Group on the Council and the potential that the decision will be called in by the Secretary of State.
Labour is failing Darlington
Like any local authority, Darlington Council faces significant budget challenges in the years ahead. But Labour’s priorities are a big part of that problem. Year after year, they have squeezed the maximum from council tax payers they can get away with without a referendum. But they have spent that income poorly. They pay senior officers as much or more than local authorities many times their size. They decline to make back office efficiencies by sharing top jobs in the way that much larger councils routinely do.
After years of poor management, Darlington Labour Party hoped for a bail out in 2015 from Chancellor Ed Balls. It was naïve to believe that an incoming Miliband government would massively increase borrowing or taxes merely to bail out failing Labour councils across the land. In any case, the voters finally quashed that hope. As a result, the fire sale cuts to front line services are far more brutal than necessary.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour looks a long way from power at the national level. But Darlington’s example shows the harm the party will continue to do at a local level for as long as people elect Labour councils.
Peter Cuthbertson was the Conservative Candidate for Darlington in 2015 and for Darlington and Durham Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016.