Councils hike charges by 100% or more

Behold, my first Sunday Times splash.

This story started as a quick trawl of local councils to see if cuts to local government budgets were impacting on the cost of council services. Short answer: yes. Everything from nursery provision to cemetery fees have seen charges hiked, or introduced for the first time, in councils across the country.

Struggling to make ends meet, councils are making big asks of their residents. But while the frontline staff scrabble for funding, council chiefs are still earning vast sums.

The full story is on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold.

Councils pile on tax by stealth

‘Stealth’ charges are being introduced by some councils to make up the shortfall in grants from central government

Cal Flyn and Maurice Chittenden
The Sunday Times, 9 January 2011

Councils are putting up charges across the board to hit millions of families at almost every stage from the cradle to the grave. Some fees are being increased by more than 100% as councils squeeze residents for cash to help pay for exorbitant salaries, an investigation by The Sunday Times has revealed.

Ministers fear that, rather than making cuts in their spending as was intended, local authorities are instead raising their prices to make up the shortfall in grants from central government.

The “stealth” charges introduced by some councils include:

  • Removal of free nursery provision
  • Doubling the cost of bus passes for schoolchildren;
  • A 20% rise in hire charges for sports facilities;
  • Introduction of car parking charges on Sunday and late at night;
  • Extra bills for home helps and meals on wheels;
  • The cost of burial plots rising by as much as £300;
  • Rent doubling or tripling for allotment holders.

Grant Shapps, the local government minister, last night warned local authorities against trying to raise charges to avoid making savings or cutting executive salaries. He said: “Families are already paying too much in local taxes. Councils should not be using residents as cash cows.”

Many council executives are continuing to pay themselves more than the prime minister while overseeing authorities that waste money and fail to get to grips with staff sickness rates that are sometimes almost treble those in the private sector.

Camden council in north London plans to reduce free nursery provision, while Brent council in northwest London increased the price of burial plots last week by £220 for residents and £331 for non-residents. Leicester is charging £3.50 more, a 9% increase, to issue a marriage certificate.

Even Sundays are no longer sacrosanct, with at least 20 authorities, including the cathedral cities of Winchester, Shrewsbury, Gloucester, Exeter and Bath, introducing car parking charges for a day that was traditionally free to allow people to go to church. In Exeter a four-hour stay will cost £6.20.

Other councils, including Kensington and Chelsea in London, Oxfordshire, Guildford and Cardiff have extended parking charges until 10pm. Enfield council in north London expects to raise an extra £600,000 from stricter parking restrictions, including a £3 charge to park for two hours on Sundays. North Lanarkshire will be introducing parking charges in the spring in an attempt to rake in an extra £1m.

Increases in charges for home helps and meals on wheels in Nottinghamshire will hit vulnerable pensioners; while Brent is increasing the annual cost of a full-size allotment from £66 to £150, and Greenwich smallholders could see allotment charges increasing threefold, from £65 to £200 a year.

Charges for everything from the hire of a football pitch to entry to a swimming pool are going to be higher across the country. Camden is increasing its sports charges by 20%. Football teams in Brent must find £995 to play next season, £50 up on last year, while rugby teams face a £75 increase, up from £715 to £790.

Nottingham will charge 30p more for swimming and will no longer offer those on benefits a 50% discount on sport and leisure activities.Kent, Britain’s largest education authority, is doubling to £100 the cost of its “freedom pass” for children aged 11 to 16 to travel to school by bus. The increase follows a study by the council’s £277,000-a-year “research and intelligence” unit which analysed the socio-demographic status of each child with a pass and concluded that pupils with more affluent parents from groups classified as “symbols of success” and “suburban comfort” were over-represented.

Kent, which has seven executives earning more than the prime minister, last year gave its departing chief executive, Peter Gilroy, a “golden parachute” payment that cost taxpayers more than £400,000. But Manchester city council paid out the most in early retirement payments — £4.6m (though this figure covers a period of three years and includes payments to schools and for voluntary severance).

Hundreds of council staff are taking time off sick, blaming stress and psychological illness. The sickest authorities are Aberdeen, where on average workers had 15.87 days off ill last year, and Walsall, with 14.65 days per employee.

Suffolk county council has 208 staff on long-term sick leave of six months or more. The average sick leave in the private sector is 5.8 days a year. Council staff also enjoy training and awaydays paid for by the taxpayer. Islington council in north London spent £6,000 on training with Change Collective, a performance art group offering “protest, political, forum or invisible theatre” and lessons on “how to use creativity as a tool to explore personal and social issues”, while Brighton and Hove has paid £3,900 to train staff in massage for babies.

Britain’s county and town halls now pay 1,500 people more than the prime minister. The highest earner is Joanna Killian, who receives a salary of £225,000 a year as chief executive of Essex.

A spokesman for the Local Government Association, which represents councils, said: “Town halls are grappling with the toughest local government finance settlement in living memory. A few councils have seen a reduction in the money they receive from the government of up to 17% in the next financial year. Local authorities face a total funding shortfall of £6.5 billion …

“No council increases charges lightly, but individual local authorities are best placed to decide what levels are most appropriate in their areas.”

But John O’Connell, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Council tax has nearly doubled in the last 10 years so it isn’t fair for councils to ramp up other charges on taxpayers too … They must stop looking at taxpayers as an easy source of income to plug the gaps in their finances.”

Shapps, the local government minister, added: “If local authorities cut out excessive chief executive pay, share back offices, join forces to procure, and root out wild overspends, they can safeguard key frontline services. Only lazy councils will attempt to use residents to boost their bank balances.”

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