Council tax: Why are we paying to take over street cleaning?
When they look at their likely council tax bills for the year ahead, people in Trowbridge are asking why. Why do they have to fork out more tax to the town council to take over street cleaning and grass cutting from Wiltshire Council? If Wiltshire hands over the job to Trowbridge, why don’t they hand over the money to pay for it?
It’s a very good question and like many simple questions it doesn’t have a simple answer. Perhaps the quickest is just that you get what you pay for. Wiltshire’s services have been struggling for years and if Trowbridge wants clean streets and well kept parks, we need to pay to do the job well. But it still seems unfair and so the longer answer is worth setting out. It explains a few home truths about the way the country is run and why towns like Trowbridge need to take control of their own affairs if they want to make sure things are run better.
The answer starts a long time ago and a long way away, with the financial crash of 2007-8 that started in the USA. This happened because banks in America and the UK lent people money they couldn’t repay and took excessive risks. Governments then had to bail them out to stop them going bust and losing people’s savings. That meant the incoming UK government in 2010 had a massive deficit to pay off. They could have done this by raising taxes, cutting spending, or both. And what they mainly chose to do was cut spending. Remember ‘austerity’?
In particular, they embarked on a programme to slash the amount of money provided to local councils from central government – by 37% between 2010 and 2020. That’s just the average. For Wiltshire, the cut in grants from central government has been closer to 70% since 2010, leaving council taxes and business rates to fund the lion's share of services. The cut in government grants has meant that the average council's spending power has fallen by 16% over that period.
Demand for care
That might not seem a lot, but it has come at a time when demand for council spending is soaring. People are living longer and needing more social care – the biggest single budget item for councils like Wiltshire. Councils meet much of this demand, while depending on Britain’s 6.5 million unpaid carers to do the rest. As councils have channelled much of their dwindling cash into social care, other services have suffered. In big cities with big care budgets, the squeeze has meant huge cuts – the closure of swimming pools, libraries, children’s centres and other community assets. In counties like Wiltshire, we’ve seen the youth service practically eliminated and services like grass cutting struggling to cope (as in Trowbridge last summer).
Government resources have been stretched even more because the government has chosen to reduce many taxes, which means less cash for public services. In the 2010-15 period the tax cuts favoured the less well off as personal allowances rose, but in later years the Conservative government delivered big tax cuts for the rich as well. COVID-19 has since meant rises in tax and spending, but to cope with the pandemic, not to solve the deeper issues. Tax cuts are always cheered, but the harsh fact is that if you take money out of public funds – whether at the top in Westminster, or the bottom in Trowbridge – you get worse public services.
Smart politics, bad government
It’s smart politics. Westminster gets the credit for lower taxes while town and county halls get the blame for declining services. But it’s bad government. It leaves the old and vulnerable at risk. It forces councils to focus money on ‘must-do’s that directly affect those people’s lives – like care, fostering and mental health. And activities like street sweeping and grass cutting get pushed down the priority order. So that’s why a town council like Trowbridge has a choice. Do nothing and see the area become shabbier every year. Or take on the job and do it properly. It does cost a bit more, but really we’re just seeing chickens coming home to roost as the lowest level of local government picks up the bill for the cuts made by governments years ago.
On the bright side….
But there is an upside. We will be in control of cleaning our streets and maintaining our parks. We have a great team determined to do a great job. And we don’t plan to do what Westminster and Wiltshire have done and let the service slide. Taxes are never welcome, but as the American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society” – or in this case for the county town we deserve.
P.S. My party, the Liberal Democrats, was part of the 2010-15 government that started the local government funding cuts. For the record, I didn’t support joining the coalition – but it was a tough call. By way of balance, the Lib Dems pushed through the pupil premium, tax cuts for the less well-off and a record increase in clean electricity. P.P.S. We Brits pay less in tax than many other countries – but we get worse services. Tax makes up 35% of the UK economy whereas it’s more like 45% in Denmark or France – but those countries have very high quality health, education and care, plus generous pensions.
David Vigar is a Liberal Democrat member of Wiltshire Council and Trowbridge Town Council