Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Taxation without representation - haven't we been here before? Labour and saving the high street


The Labour Party wants to extend the scope of things called 'business improvement districts' (BIDs) - organisations of local businesses that are (subject to a poll of local businesses) able to levy a charge on all businesses in an area for the purposes of improving that area. These BIDS are popular with high street regeneration folk and are usually managed by a private business organisation.

It seems that, flush with the success of these organisations, Labour's resident 'experts' on saving the high street have come up with a wheeze to make BIDs even grander:

An advisory group created by Labour to consider the future of the high street has recommended that it looks at introducing a new levy on residents to fund a major expansion of Business Improvement Districts, which manage local areas.

In its report, which has been seen by The Telegraph, the High Street Advisory Group recommends “diversifying the application of BIDs, including the ability to assess property owners and residents” and says that “new tools will need to be explored which diversify income streams”.

Now there are two things that are utterly wrong with this proposal - even if you set aside the nonsense that yet another tax is the solution to anything. Firstly, taxation is bad enough when government is doing the levying but surely allowing a private organisation to levy the tax runs totally against the principle of good governance? And secondly, don't we have at least a tenuous attachment to the idea that taxation goes hand in hand with representation?

We could talk at length about high streets but these proposals represent a step beyond local businesses agreeing to a local levy (and for the record, I find the idea behind BIDs coercive and hard to defend) - every tax should be levy by a body over which those being taxed have some control. This is a fundamental tenet of democracy and if you ignore it the result is the dumping of tea in the harbour.

However, and in the interests of bipartisan policy-development, I have a wonderful solution to the dilemma. It doesn't require any new legislation or any new organisations. This solution has been tried and tested over many decades. It has its limits and its problems but most of the time it works. It also meets those tests - representation, democracy and public accountability - that we should apply to bodies that levy taxes. These are hundreds of these bodies across England ranging in size from a few folk meeting once a year to large organisations employing full time staff.

The bodies are called 'parish councils' (although you can choose to call them town, community, village or local councils too).


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