Freeze to bite in future

This week’s cabinet meeting was dominated by the council’s medium term financial strategy, or next year’s budget and all of the issues associated with it.

I’ve touched on some of the upcoming challenges in recent weeks and many of the difficulties that are facing Hartlepool because of the Government’s financial policies and cuts program.

Two more headline-grabbing policies were announced at last week’s Tory conference which, as with most things coming out of Government at the moment, have not been thought through and if they have, must be designed especially to make life more difficult for local authorities.

I’m sure the news that the Government wants to freeze the level of council tax for a second year has been welcomed by everyone. After all, no one likes paying more taxes and the Government has said it will fund councils the equivalent of a 2.5 per cent rise if they freeze the level of council tax. In Hartlepool’s case, this is approximately £1million. This seems great at first glance but is it actually as attractive as it seems to be?

Well, they did something similar last year and promised to supplement the loss in income to councils for a period of four years. That wasn’t too bad although, unless there is some funding forthcoming in 2015, there is going to be a budget deficit that will need filling after year four. This time, they are only guaranteeing the funding for the tax freeze for one year which, if we go down that route, means we will only be storing up bigger problems for future years.

If we raise council tax by 2.5 per cent we have an extra £1million in our budget for next year and for every year after that. This strategy is one we have always relied on to both raise income and sustain services. If this £1million is actually subsidised by the Government next year, it will not actually be in our base budget the following year or any year after that and we would have to raise council tax by five per cent (or actually slightly more) next year just to get the budget back to the level it should be.

Of course, the Government will say it is a local choice on the level of council tax but really we have no choice but to freeze it this year. Anything above 2.5 per cent will be capped, so how are we supposed to be able to tell the public they have to pay more council tax when the Government is funding a freeze? We can’t. We are pretty much snookered and we just have to bite this bullet and set down the marker that the problems are going to be just as big if not bigger next year when this freeze comes back to bite.

The other big announcement last week was that the Government had miraculously found £250million to fund councils to go back to weekly bin collections. More precisely, if councils guarantee to collect residual waste every week for the next five years, they can bid to a national pot of funding to help pay for this.

I would hope that most people can see how absurd this policy is and that it’s nothing more than a feeble attempt at winning a few votes.

There are so many reasons not to take the Government up on this kind offer, I don’t have enough room in this column to list them all.

The council has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds over recent years on getting people to recycle their domestic waste. Getting people to change their lifestyle habits is not an easy thing to do.

I believe we have had a lot of success over the years in changing to alternative weekly bin collections. I believe most people support this policy and that shows by the amount of recyclables that are collected every day.

I reckon there would be uproar if we turned round and told people to forget about recycling at home and just go back to putting everything in your green bin. Not only would it cost much more than the Government is making available, it would actually be a backward step for our society.

We have spent years putting environmental education into schools. A whole generation of children know how important it is to recycle household waste and I bet any one of them could give you a comprehensive list of reasons why. Eric Pickles is now telling us that this was all a waste of time and money.

Perhaps the most obvious reason not to apply to Mr. Pickles’ new pot of funding as a keeper of the public purse is that we currently pay £80 for every tonne of waste we send to landfill.

There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that our annual landfill bill would be much, much higher if we did not recycle. In fact, one of the main reasons for bringing in alternate weekly collections was because of the introduction of landfill tax.

If we go back to weekly residual collections, I shudder to think what the increase in our landfill tax would be.

Some of the more cynical among you might even think the reason for bringing in this ridiculous policy is to generate more income through landfill tax.

The Government keep saying it is giving much more local control over finances and decisions but what it is actually doing is tying both hands behind our back, punching us in the stomach, blacking our eyes and shifting the blame to make it look self-inflicted.