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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Bridgend Council : The Good, the Alright and the Ugly

Local elections are often highly unpredictable. People say they're fought on local issues and I'd agree with that – despite how this election campaign has been fought. I'm going to stick with that at least. It's nice to be able to focus on Bridgend in some detail for once.

Since 2008, Bridgend Council has been run by Labour, who currently have a plurality of 27 seats.

Here are my own opinions on how the local council has performed over the past four years and what stands out in particular. There are probably many others points that could/should be included too.

I'll be making my predictions before Thursday as well - taking a leaf out of Y Cneifiwr's book.

The Excellent

Waste Management & Recycling

If I had to pick one thing that stands out as "excellent" this would be it. There were more than a few teething problems, and in parts of Bridgend it still can't be utilised fully, but the statistics speak for themselves. A 51% recycling rate in 2010. Both the council and May Gurney should take a bow. Question marks still remain on the destination of the rubbish though and whether it's actually that "sustainable" in the long run. I hope the incoming administration can keep this up.

Credit needs to go to Cllr. John Spanswick (Lab, Brackla), who oversaw the new scheme, and who's standing down from Bridgend's cabinet (if re-elected) due to work commitments. Thank you, John.

The Good

Planning & Local Development Plan

The timetable for the Local Development Plan has slipped, but all in all planning services have been pretty decent the last four years. There haven't been any major controversies - Llynfi power station and Island Farm aside - and the LDP does seem to have hit the right balance between economic development, sustainability and regeneration. There's finally a proper masterplan in place for Bridgend town centre, though it remains to be seen if some of the more ambitious schemes can be delivered in the economic climate.

School Modernisation

There have been several major and minor modifications to primary and secondary schools across the borough - carried through from the previous council term - including significant developments such as Archbishop McGrath in Brackla and the new Coleg Cymunedol y Dderwen to replace Ynysawdre and Ogmore schools.

However, how much longer are Penyfai going to be waiting for a new primary school? They've been waiting since at least 2003, despite "visits from Carwyn Jones and Rhodri Morgan". It's been "on the way" since 2007.

Do Labour operate on a different level of space-time to the rest of us?

Bridgend Townscape Heritage Scheme

The destruction of the old Bridgend Town Hall was an act of municipal vandalism. However this Lottery-backed scheme has seen some of the Georgian core of Bridgend town centre slowly restored over the last few years. The developments at Elder Yard and Elder Mews will hopefully add a modern twist to things.

However much it appears that the town centre is "on the up" architecturally, it's important to remember that many of the businesses are struggling. Bridgend Market is in desperate need for a revamp and although, on the ground, it appears as though there are few shop vacancies, there are still big gaps, with possibly more to come in the future. That doesn't exclusively apply to Bridgend.

Bridgend Business Forum

This seemed to come out of nowhere, but has grown tremendously in the last few years to over 300 members. It's great to see Bridgend businesses come together like this and hopefully learn from each other and push their companies forward. A great scheme by all accounts. One to watch.

The Alright

Adult & Community Care

We've seen some positive developments here in recent years, for example the new day centre in Waterton and the (by the looks of it) fantastic new extra-care facility in Kenfig Hill. However, the loss of mental health beds in come communities (if not entirely the council's remit) has been brushed aside flippantly as "scaremongering". Have residents and patients at Troed-y-Ton and Maesteg Hospital been put under unnecessary stress by these developments?

The new homeless and rehabilitation centres in Bridgend town centre are another, broadly positive, development. There's logic in locating these as close to the town centre as possible, but are these in danger of creating "ghettos" in the Morfa Ward, which is already a fairly down at heel part of Bridgend as it is?

Leisure Services

Bridgend Council recently contracted out leisure services to Halo Leisure and Greenwich Leisure Limited. Both are not-for-profits but this is, by definition, a privatisation. Labour are describing it, euphemistically, as a "partnership" and are taking credit in their election leaflets for a possible £4m redevelopment of Bridgend Recreation Centre.

All in all I think this is a positive development. The "Rec" is in desperate need of modernisation, and the council have long held ambitions for the creation of a "Life Centre" there. This deal could finally see something happen, and I'll be monitoring any developments on that front of course.

Both companies have a good track record. But if Labour are willing to take the credit for the good things, they should be prepared to take responsibility for the bad. For example, some of the listed prices do appear to be on the steep side. They'll be watched like a hawk on this one.

Highways Maintenance

The workers do an efficient job, but there are more than a few "bumpy" parts of Bridgend's road network. This isn't so much the council's fault, more a sign of cutbacks. The harsh weather over the last few years hasn't helped either.

The issue of street lights being turned off has proven rather contentious in some parts of the county as well. Could some be converted to run on renewable power?

Communities First Partnerships

Hit and miss. Living next to a Communities First area, I've seen some of the benefits of this scheme, however it by no means brings areas out of poverty, or solves long-standing issues. It certainly helps people "connect" to one another, but it appears to be nothing more than a stop gap. There should be a full national review of it, and yes, Labour should pull the plug if it's not actually producing any benefits. I'm not sure if the outcomes warrant the levels of investment seen.

Could Communities First partnerships be spun-out as social enterprises? Perhaps with supervision by housing associations, with more free-reign on what projects they can do. There's a decent enough base in some of these areas.

The Ugly

School Performance

The way school banding works is rather confusing. If it were weighted more heavily on exam results, Bridgend's performance will likely have been better. However, only managing to have one secondary school in the top band, and four in the lowest band (including previously "well regarded" schools like Brynteg, Pencoed and Bryntirion) needs an investigation. GCSE results are starting to slip, and remain behind the Welsh average. Sort it out before it gets worse.

The Maesteg Cosi Site

Yes, it's finally gone at long last. There've been obligatory photos in the Gazette of councillors standing, smiling in front of the clearing rubble. Being left the way it was, for so long, was absolutely disgusting - long-standing land ownership issues included. Worthy of a clip around the head for both the council and the landowners methinks.

Porthcawl Regeneration

The economy will have played a part in this, so it's not entirely the council's fault. However, I think this must be the first case where Tesco are struggling to build a new supermarket. Calls for improved leisure facilities in the town – usually involving a swimming pool - seem to fall on deaf ears. Never has a regeneration project promised so much, yet (to date) delivered so little.

Last but not least....

Job Evaluation

"....and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council....a Labour council....hiring taxis to scuttle around the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers."

OK, that quote applies more to Neath Port Talbot and Rhondda Cynon Taf, but the sentiment is the same.

This unforgivable action is a real low point in Bridgend Council's history. I've made my thoughts clear on this before. I have no time for unions that seem to pick fights to make political points, but the council have badly let down those affected. I can understand the financial pressure the council is under, but their handling of this has been a genuine, jaw-dropping disgrace. To treat their own workers like this. SMH.

Shame on you.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Taking a break

The blog on council tax will be my last for a little while.

That “rant” on the Green Investment Bank was uncharacteristic of me. If I'm completely honest, I shocked myself.

As I said in the introduction and follow up, AMs and the civil service have a tough job and should be “afforded a bit of slack every now and again”. I respect, even admire and look up to, anyone that puts their head on the block and enters public service like that – whether party activist, councillor, AM, MP or civil servant. They're a braver person than me. It wasn't personal.

Despite a few good things happening elsewhere, for a “national government” it's indefensible and I stand by what I've written. I'm surprised that someone with as meticulous an eye for detail as Edwina Hart would allow it to go out with her name on it. To see the Welsh Government emblem on that rubbish was embarrassing. By allowing myself to be wound up by it though, I might've let myself down, even if I felt it was a symptom of a wider problem. I doubt it's going to be my last word on the matter though.

On those wider problems, I neglected to mention that Gareth Hughes and Syniadau have covered this before, citing civil service reforms enacted in Scotland. There's also an interesting discussion in the comments section at Syniadau.

Interestingly, the First Minister has launched a “New Deal”, which you can read here, as a vision for public services. It tantalisingly addresses a few of the concerns we've all raised, and even hints at something similar to a “National Civil Service Academy”, which I suggested in the follow up to the original post. Under the “Sir Humphrey” talk, there are actually a few reasonable ideas in there. Funny how timings work out, isn't it?

There's a real crisis out there and it's not because of any lack of underlying will - but administrative paralysis, head-in-the-sand attitudes and shoulder-shrugging.

Any solution seems to be short-term – whether it's grants or handouts, fairly modest tinkering or spreading public investment thinly. Although that works sometimes, the bigger things, that haven't been addressed since the Great Depression, are still there and it's crippling the Welsh economy.

I wish we'd stop arguing over the semantics - whether it's right that Wales has this power or that power, coming up with excuses or blocking reasons as to why such and such wouldn't work, focusing on the wrong targets, or getting the bureaucracy and frameworks right - and actually got round to a unified sense of purpose, and took the bigger steps to turning this tanker around. At the same time we should be taking a bit more responsibility for ourselves, and having bolder visions that aren't limited in ambition or scope.

It's also important we have an effective opposition - a point raised on A Change of Personnel. I've mentioned before how effective “tag-teaming” can be. As I've also mentioned in the follow up to the “rant”, people need to be put over the coals for this. Questions have to be answered.

If they can get away with the little things, one day they'll get away with something big. They could already have done for all we know.

It's just a shame that in spite of all the posts where I've pointed to good things the Welsh Government has done, all the posts on ideas for independence (or indeed with further devolved powers) and other constitutional issues - it was an incredibly negative and cynical piece that garnered wider attention.

I don't want to run that type of blog. The time's right to take a step back.

In the meantime, I direct you to the Independence Index if you want to go over my lengthier posts (and maybe a few you've missed).

I'll still respond to any comments, but I'll take a break from new blogs until May.

Until then – hwyl fawr!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Council Tax in Wales - Are the poor paying more?

In financially straightened times, and with local elections coming up,
Council Tax and it's relative burden, is becoming a hot issue.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

How council tax works

You'll already know this but....

Council Tax was introduced as a replacement for Community Charge (aka Poll Tax) by the UK Government in 1993. Households are placed into bands, based on the value of their properties, with A being the lowest and H being the highest. A ratio is set, so that bands pay a certain proportion of Council Tax, with Band D as the "average" around which all others are set. Band A households, for example, pays around 67% of the Council Tax of a household in Band D.

In 2003, there was a revaluation of Council Tax bands in Wales, including the creation of an I-band, which came into effect in 2005. According to a BBC article from the time, 33% of homes moved up a band, while only 8% moved down, despite a prediction that "a quarter would move up and a quarter would move down." This could be a result of the house-price boom during that wider period.

For businesses, non-domestic rates (NDR) are based on a "ratable value" of business properties multiplied by a "multiplier" which determines an NDR bill. The provisional multiplier for 2012-13 is 45.2p, so for a business with a ratable value of £10,000 - the provisional NDR bill would be £4,520 – payable in instalments over the year. However it's not as simple as that. There are rate relief schemes that help ease the burden - for small businesses in particular - with low ratable values. It can reduce the bill by as much as 50%, or even 100% for small post offices.

In addition to council tax and NDR, there are also "precepts" – extra levies raised by police authorities, fire authorities, community & parish councils and national park authorities.

Council tax, rate relief, and local government finance are devolved to the Assembly, being one of the few examples of the Assembly wielding fiscal powers.

The situation is more muddied with regard non-domestic rates. Ratable values for businesses, and the "multiplier" are set on an EnglandandWales basis. (Thanks to an Anonymous commentator for pointing that out.)

How is the money redistributed in Wales?

Councils, as far as I know, generally keep whatever Council Tax they raise. Precepts go to the relevant authorities.

Non-domestic rates are put into a central "kitty", held in the Welsh Consolidated Fund at Westminster, and redistributed back to Welsh local authorities based on a formula, made up of various criteria, including population, relative deprivation and demographics. It forms a large part of the Welsh Government's annual local authority settlement.

This is topped up with other central grants to fund local services as part of the Welsh Government's (or in the case of policing, the UK Government, as policing is an EnglandandWales matter) priorities for the area. For example, local transport schemes or to support things like Communities First.

Council Tax in 2012-13

One thing that stood out when looking at the provisional rates, published by the WLGA is how high Band D council tax was in places such as Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent. Considering these are two of Wales' smallest and more deprived local authorities, I decided to plot the average wage in each local authority (from 2011) against the respective provisional Band D rate. Then I created a measure to give an idea of the "burden" - by determining how many weeks - at the average local wage - it would take to pay off a Band D bill. I called this an "earnings to tax ratio".

Council Tax in Wales 2012-13
(Click to enlarge)

Some of the figures - in particular the tax increases - might be out of date now. There aren't significant differences from the provisional figures, but a few local authorities have set lower increases, I have to make that clear.

Four local authorities decided to freeze council tax for the year : Bridgend, Swansea, Monmouthshire & Caerphilly.

What are the findings?

Before taking things at face value, it's important to note that council tax is set based on property value not household incomes. Someone could live in a Band B or C property and earn a higher weekly wage than the local authority average, the opposite could also be true. I must also point out the figures above don't include precepts for things like the police or community councils.

The above figures in in graph form
(Click to enlarge)

However the general trends appear to be:

  • At the extremes - the lower the local average wage, the higher the Band D council tax bill and the opposite is equally true.
  • The majority of local authorities tend to have a "burden" of around 1.9-2 weeks wages (excluding precepts).
  • There's probably a link between levels of deprivation in a local authority and higher council tax bills. Only Monmouthshire and Powys from the wealthier East Wales region have above-average Band D council tax bills.
  • Remember that council tax is set using a ratio, so if the Band D bill is higher than average, then Bands C, B and A will be too. Glancing at the Welsh Government's statistics, this is certainly the case.

Political performance

As the local elections are coming up, you're going to put me on the spot and want a party political picture, won't you. It's a mixed bad, with good news and bad news for all parties.

I've defined "led or influenced" as either outright control, minority rule or a ruling coalition - but I've only counted it if the party has a significant number of seats. So for example, Cardiff has been counted for both the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru. It isn't an exact science, I'm not a psephologist, sociologist or economist, so treat these conclusions with caution.

(Click to enlarge)
  • Conservative led or influenced local authorities are few in number, but they are the wealthiest on average, with below average council tax bills, burdens and the lowest tax rises.
  • Lib Dem led or influenced local authorities are wealthier than average and have the lowest burdens, lowest average council tax bill, but tax rises are at the Welsh average.
  • Independent led or influenced local authorities vary wildly, individually, in wealth, but are generally poorer than the Welsh average. With the exception of Pembrokeshire, tax rises and burdens tend to be the highest, but the average council tax bill is slightly below the Welsh average.
  • Labour led or influenced local authorities have average wealth (probably distorted by Bridgend & Neath Port Talbot), higher than average tax burdens and the highest council tax bills overall, but rises have been kept to below the Welsh average.
  • Plaid Cymru led or influenced local authorities tend to have average burdens, but are generally less-wealthy than the Welsh average. They have the second lowest council tax bills overall, but council tax rises are slightly above average.
All this now begs the question:

Why are the figures they way they are?

It shouldn't automatically be assumed that tax rises are a "bad thing". In terms of politics, it might be true that Labour have higher council tax bills, and the Conservatives smaller, but that was a given, wasn't it? We all know that.

In local terms, different parties tend to rule or influence different areas. Labour in urban authorities of the south and north east, Lib Dems in major urban areas, Conservatives in wealthier rural authorities and Plaid and Independents a wide spread, with Plaid more dominant in Y Fro (Caerphilly and Cardiff aside). Each area is going to have its own individual needs, and subsequently, their own individual spending priorities and requirements.

Council tax bills could:

  • Be justifiably higher in more deprived areas - they tend to have the greatest need for public spending. I imagine most households in these areas will be Bands A, B and C - so Band D is set higher to maximise income from lower bands. Is this putting a greater burden on some of our poorest communities? It might not be that clear cut.
  • Be set at an affordably lower rate in larger, more populated, local authorities (Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Wrexham etc.) - there are more households. Wouldn't they also be receiving more from the non-domestic rates "kitty" too? Are council tax freezes, or smaller rises, trumpeted in these places actually, to an extent, disingenuous?
  • Be justifiably higher in sparsely populated areas - because services are generally more expensive to run there – but that doesn't explain the Pembrokeshire anomaly.
  • Be affordably set lower in wealthier local authorities – they're likely to have more properties in higher council tax bands – Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan for example.
  • Be a reflection of the small size of some local authorities. It might be easier to run some services close to a community. However, with a smaller household pool to get tax from, are taxes set at a disproportionately higher rate to provide services at the same level and standard as larger authorities?

It's a complicated picture.

It's also important to look at the impact of council tax in terms of demographics and welfare.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies published a report in 2010 entitled "A Survey of the UK Benefits System". It offers a detailed overview of the current benefits system in the UK, but also looks at the UK Government's plans for welfare, including changes to benefit entitlements and the introduction of the Universal Credit.

Council Tax benefit is available to people on low incomes – averaging £15.69 per week according to the latest release by the Department of Work & Pensions. At the end of 2011, there were just over 327,000 council tax benefit recipients in Wales, which is roughly the equivalent of £270m per year.

According to the IFS report, Council Tax benefit is due to be localised from 2013-14, with an estimated spending reduction in the area of 10%. So there is the possibility it could disproportionately impact some of Wales' already struggling areas, already with some of the highest council tax bills and relative "burdens".

Are there possible alternative funding models for the future?

Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) recently advocated a Land Value Tax, holding a short debate in the Assembly, which you can see here. (Not wanting to get too off topic, but how depressing is it to see so many empty seats in the Siambr for such a imaginative policy proposal?) There's also an article on Click on Wales.

The basic idea is that, as you might have guessed, the value of land is taxed, instead of the value of whatever's built on top of it. It was be much clearer to understand and collect, and it might encourage development, to avoid areas "lying fallow". Nobody would like to be taxed on something they own but don't use, would they?

In Scotland, the SNP proposed to introduce local income tax, to replace council tax. It would have operated similarly to non-domestic rates – the central government would collect local income tax, then redistribute it back to local authorities.

The UK Government threatened to withhold £400million in Council Tax benefit if the SNP went through with the proposal, and it probably contributed to the policy being effectively dropped. The IFS produced a bulletin that suggested that a 3% local income tax would leave a shortfall of some £450million.

There's also the option of US-style Local Sales Taxes - as a way to compliment, or reduce non-domestic rates – put on top of something like VAT or added to any sale in a given area, set at a local level, but realistically something like 1%.


Are the poor paying more council tax in Wales? At the most basic, visual level, you could certainly get that impression. However, the underlying picture is more complicated than that. Council Tax has never been a particularly popular fiscal lever in the UK, but judging by the statistics, it does provide a substantial level of income for our local authorities – more so than a local income tax would.

Despite there being a wide range of help out there - from Council Tax benefit, to rate relief - is a tax based on property value, at a fundamental level, ever going to be truly fair?