Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Why the Taxpayers Alliance needs to shut up or learn something about local government

I can't speak for others in local government but the Taxpayers Alliance really gets my goat. And I say this as someone who wants low taxes and small government. The TPA seem to specialise in a particular low rent form of attack - sending freedom of information requests to every council usually to obtain information already publicly available. This information is then totted up and badged as waste. Thousands of hours - all funded by the taxpayer naturally - spent providing trite information about councillor expenses, officer pay, trade union facilities time or numbers of press officers. The TPA then bungs out a press release screaming about waste, how hard-working officers are 'overpaid' or councillors travelling the land on junkets.

The problem is that none of this febrile investigative work gets anywhere near the heart of the TPA's alleged mission of lower taxes and smaller government. It gets them a headline - "Ten Borsetshire top bosses earn over £100,000" or "Big Borough Chief Executive earns more than the Prime Minister" - but the effect of this isn't to get us better, smaller government but rather to undermine public confidence in their local government. The TPA will then get some information about potholes and claim that, if we didn't pay chief executives so much money or employ press officers then we'd have all the cash needed to fix those potholes - despite this being utter tripe.

Don't get me wrong, this is good politics - at least if you're looking for a stick to beat incumbent council leaderships - but it completely and totally misses the point. If you want smaller, cheaper local government then the only way to do it is for one or both of two things to happen - councils stop doing things they do right now and/or councils start charging people for the services we give them (see green waste collections, for example). At the moment - not that the TPA ever mention this, of course - top tier local councils spend between 50% and 80% of their budgets providing social services and social care - in Bradford's case about £180,000,000. Paying the chief executive £120,000 instead of £160,000 isn't going to make one jot of difference to this problem bar making it more difficult to recruit a good enough person to run the organisation.

I was talking recently about the difficulties councils have recruiting and retaining planning officers (typical pay £30,000-50,000). As soon as we get an experienced officer with his or her boots under the table, up pops a far better paid opportunity in private consultancy and off zooms the experienced planning officer. The same applies for property and planning lawyers, good accountants, leisure centre managers, and human resources officers. Maybe the nice folk working for the TPA are doing so for love and a bowl of rice every second day but in the real world there's a competitive market for the skills needed to run large and complex organisations and the professional expertise to deliver the services those organisations provide.

If the Taxpayers Alliance wants to meet its mission of lower taxes it needs to start saying what it is that government should stop providing so as to do this - not just infrastructure projects like HS2 but actual revenue services like defence, benefits, health, education or pensions. It would be more interesting to see a picture painted of the small state, low tax future implied by the TPA's mission but all we get is attacks on petty waste (and often not even waste but legitimate spending) and the wages of senior offers - wages that aren't competitive and which often result in poor management in those local councils.

It's time we started to push back at the TPA - for sure they provide good copy - over local government pay, service delivery and funding. Because the TPA is wrong, damages the reputation of local government and prefers a cheap headline over a thoughtful contribution to the debate about how English local government is run and funded.


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