Friday, 24 September 2010

Large Local Difficulties

I am very glad that England is not to undergo a revaluation for the purposes of the Council Tax, an arbitrary levy on the theoretical value of an asset which in any case one might not own, and which one certainly cannot sell unless one is supposed to go and live up a tree or something. The restoration of the rates in all but name was paid for by a two and a half per cent increase in VAT, which was hardly any way to help the poor. And all the old middle-class rates exemptions (students, clergy, &c) were brought back; they remain in place to this day.

But the myths prevail, both that the Council Tax is “universal” (in fact, it specifically replaced a universal tax, the universality of which was presented as the problem with it – astonishingly few people, rather than addresses, are liable for Council Tax), and that the Poll Tax was a massively unfair imposition on the poor, who in reality had it paid for them through the benefits system, or paid far less than they do now, or both.

Now, it is not my concern to defend the Poll Tax. It was in many ways misconceived, and in every imaginable way badly implemented. But if the people who had complained most vociferously about it had been the poor, then it would still be in place. No government since 1979 has cared tuppence about the poor. When Thatcher blamed an underclass for rioting against being dragged into any sort of civic participation, and blamed Major and Heseltine for giving in to that underclass, then she was right. Just not in the way that she thought.

That underclass was not economic, but moral. It was not the poor. It was well-heeled students, dossing graduates, and people like that. That was why there was any surrender. There would have been none to the poor. And those are the people who did, and do, object to any sort of civic participation; extremely poor people either ignore such things or never hear about them in the first place, rather than objecting to them. They who so objected did so because of the words and deeds of Margaret Thatcher, with her active scorn for the public realm and her instruction to her followers that their good fortune was their moral superiority, so that others less privileged were manifestly less worthy.

The Poll Tax has become a useful way of explaining the fall of Thatcher without mentioning the EU, just as unilateral nuclear disarmament (advocated by the Gaitskellites and many Tories in the Fifties and Sixties, and not Labour Party policy until two years and a General Election after the Limehouse Declaration) has become a useful way of explaining the creation of the SDP without mentioning that it was a direct intervention in the British electoral process by a President of the European Commission acting as such. Be not deceived, in either case.

It is also worth pointing out the very odd mythic status of the Poll Tax in Scotland, where it was introduced a year early by popular demand, where there was never a riot against it, where the Tories experienced a net gain of one seat in 1992, and where a party which bangs on and on about its alleged iniquity is now determined on replacing the Council Tax with something more than suspiciously like it.

Everyone uses lots of local services. Unless they send their children to private schools, as hardly anyone does, then most people make as much such use as each other, regardless of class or income; indeed, such things as street lighting are often significantly better in more affluent areas. But hardly anyone votes in local elections, because local government is emasculated yet expensive, and notoriously unaccountable. It has not always been any of those things.

We need to restore in full the proper powers of local government, with no tendering out of services in Conservative areas to the people who fund the local Conservative Party (in Labour areas, the Labour-funding unions rightly make sure that things are kept in house), no ultra vires principle, no surcharging, no capping (local government is in fact significantly less profligate than central government), none of the things that would not be tolerated in any other comparable country, not least including the frequent redrawing of boundaries, abolition of whole tiers, and such like.

We need to bring back the old committee system, which gave individual councillors real clout, and so made it worthwhile to buttonhole them in the street, in the pub, or wherever, or indeed to write to, telephone or email them. Eric Pickles has made a good start in allowing a return to that system, but he needs to require it.

We need a system whereby each of us votes for one candidate and the requisite number, never fewer than two, is elected at the end.

And we need a fair, efficient, comprehensible and accountable system of funding. Until anyone presents me with a better alternative, then I continue to propose an annual flat fee, fixed by the council in question, strictly voluntary, entitling the payer to vote and stand in elections to the council, and payable through the benefits system on behalf of the very poor. Central government would continue to meet much or all of the cost of statutory services to statutory standards. With its fees, the council could do pretty much whatever it liked on top, directly accountable to the people paying the bills.

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