Tuesday, 13 January 2015

FTC - setting next year's budget

We had a swift and consensual meeting of FTC last night.  It was our annual budget setting council.  At the risk of stating the obvious the size of the budget has a direct relationship to the council tax rate that is set.   Now yesterday's meeting didn't set the council tax - we will do that later this month - but as a council we did make our position crystal clear.

At my behest the council unanimously resolved not to increase the council tax and therefore set its budget so that the current rate of £38.47 per Band D property in a year should not be exceeded.

Inevitably the devil in these things is in the detail - and unfortunately we don't have all the details that we would like at the moment.  As council tax is charged on households knowing the number of chargeable houses in Frodsham is important.  Every year some additional houses are built and some older ones are knocked down.  Typically Frodsham grows a little bit each year.  Also in April this year Frodsham's boundaries will move bringing in additional houses in Kinglesy Green and on Mill Lane (between the Weaver and the Weaver Navigation).  Now FTC is waiting to hear from CWaC how many chargeable houses we have now and how many more we will have when the boundaries change in April.  Obviously as a percentage of the total number of houses in Frodsham any changes will be small - but it does mean we can't be exact over the figures at this stage - other than saying we have all accepted that we do not want the council tax to be charged to increase at all.  What the figures prove to be to the last penny are, however not yet known!

Incidentally as FTC's council tax is lower than Kingsley - those residents living in Kingsley Green will see a modest fall in their council tax when they join us.

Both FTC's and CWaC's record over the Council Tax is impressive.  Since 2009 the council tax paid by Frodsham residents to CWaC and FTC has fallen by more than 12% in real terms.

Since 2011 we have been able to increase the revenues coming into FTC significantly without affecting any Frodsham resident's pocket - and in fact if you are an 'over 70' your council tax has fallen when you take account of the now £6 Christmas Voucher.  We've been able to do this through:

  • grants from CWaC - such as the automatic receipt by FTC of 25% of the New Homes Bonus money; and
  • using CWaC's special expenses regime (which are £0 in Frodsham) to effectively swap £8.32's worth of Council Tax from CWaC to FTC without increasing what people pay.
The opportunity to increase FTC's revenues yet further will come through the Neighbourhood Planning Process.  Assuming CWaC adopts the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) arrangements - which is likely - FTC will receive 15% of any CIL payments automatically.  If we have a neighbourhood plan the percentage receipt automatically received by FTC will rise to 25%.

CIL payments are levied on developers of new houses or of food retail premises.  It is an alternative to s106 Town & Country Planning Act 1991 payments and help local communities provide for rising demand for services arising because of increased demands caused by additional residents.

One of the other debates we had yesterday was in relation to whether Parish Council council tax changes should be subject to the capping regime that applies to the council tax levied by the principal council (ie CWaC), the police and crime commissioner and the fire authority.   If one of these authorities wants to increase the council tax by 2% or more then that can only happen if the increase is supported in a local referendum.  The Government is consulting on whether to introduce these capping to parish councils.  In recent years, on average, parish council council tax has risen by 14%.

As I've shown we have an excellent track record locally and we've kept our council tax pretty much static both at FTC and CWaC and delivered more than a 12% real terms reduction once inflation has been taken into account.  However I'm not in favour of an automatic cap for parish councils.  You see the numbers involved are so small.

If FTC was subject to say a 2% cap which currently applies to CWaC, the police and crime commissioner and the fire authority then FTC could only increase its council tax up to £39.23 in other words only 76p more from its current rate of £38.47 on a Band D property.   That theoretical 76p more would only raise around £3,000 for FTC.   Also if we have a situation where FTC takes over a service from CWaC - and this could result in council tax being swapped from CWaC to FTC then I wouldn't want any capping rules to prevent that change from happening.

My own position on the council tax is very clear.  Instinctively I don't want to increase the charge on anyone.  We heard yesterday at the council meeting from a young apprentice arguing that any council tax rise would hit the lower paid and those on fixed incomes the worst.  I agreed with him - hence arguing for no increase at all.

I want all councils constantly to innovate and improve service delivery whilst driving out costs.  Sometimes however there can be a step change in what is being delivered - and then asking for a higher council tax in exchange for new or additional services could be justified - BUT ONLY WITH THE SUPPORT of local residents.

The biggest threat to the council tax position in Frodsham comes from Labour.  Labour finance spokesman on CWaC Cllr Ben Powell has already said he wants to do away with the special expenses regime.  This is the regime that seeks to give fairness to communities like Frodsham that do more with the council tax paid to their parish council than others.  We pay for our PCSO, our Christmas Lights etc through FTC's council tax (unlike other areas such as Northwich who get all or some of those services from CWaC).  Those areas who get those things paid for by CWaC as opposed to their parish council have to pay for them by way of special expenses.

The message is very clear and very stark - and in fact has long been evident from practice over many years.  Labour councils increase your council tax.  If, God-forbid, Cllr Powell gets his way we'll all have a council tax rise in Frodsham to subsidise areas without parish councils, or those where the parish councils are doing less than we do in Frodsham.  I am vigorously opposed to Labour's plan to increase our council tax in Frodsham.

Blog update 21 January 2015
Cllr Powell has been in contact with me by Twitter about this blog entry - he disagrees with my comment in the previous paragraph.

This has given me the opportunity to remind him of what he said at CWaC's budget meeting on 16 October 2014.  In his somewhat interminable 13:39 minute long and laboured speech responding to the budget he referenced special expenses twice in critical terms.  He referred to them as being a 'fiasco' and left no-one in any doubt that he disagreed with them and would do away with them if he had the opportunity.

Later on in that budget debate I spoke.  The first point I made was to reference a letter written by Labour MP and Shadow for Communities and Local Government Rt Hon Hillary Benn dated 25 August 2014.  In that letter Mr Benn advises councils that Labour will, if elected, reallocate government grant monies in the 2015-16 year to 'the more deprived local authorities.'  In other words this will mean taking money from the 'less deprived local authorities.'   We know this will effectively mean that Labour, if elected, will divert monies into councils serving urban populations - they see them as 'more deprived' and Hilary Benn's letter makes this point.  This inevitably would pressure those councils losing expected government grant to have to consider raising the council tax to compensate for lost government grant.

The next point I made was to reference Cllr Powell's own speech.  I said to him in the debate: 'if you are going to do away with special expenses you are attacking my community.  My community is one of the few communities that actually funds more of itself than any other.  Thank you for pointing out that you are going to make our situation worse.'  I also pointed out to Cllr Powell that he had given me the opportunity to campaign on this issue.  Frodsham is one of only a handful of communities where £0 special expenses are charged.

No one challenged or questioned my comments or assertions in the council debate or subsequently.

Perhaps in the 3 months that has gone by Cllr Powell has realised that the Special Expenses regime is there for a reason.  However he remains opposed to it.

So let me remind him.  Special Expenses seeks to remedy an unfairness where some communities receive services paid for by the Borough Council, which in other places are provided by the Town or Parish Council.  CWaC identifies play areas, Christmas lights and PCSOs as things that are paid for by CWaC in some areas and by some or all of the Town or Parish councils elsewhere.

As it is communities in CWaC with Town and Parish councils typically pay a little more in council tax than those that don't have them.  For a small increase in cost we get more choice, more service more local influence and more local democracy.  It is this small amount of council tax that has, for example brought us many of our defibrillators, that has given us our wonderful local winter gritting scheme, that pays for our PCSO, our Christmas lights etc and other things besides.

I am also delighted that the differential between what a Frodsham council tax payer pays when compared to a council tax payer in a non-parished area such as Chester has reduced over the years because of special expenses.

So in this financial year a Band D charge varies something like this:

Frodsham                      £1,528.34 (includes £0 special expenses)
Chester                          £1,507.26 (includes c£16.13 special expenses)

In Frodsham we pay c£21 more in council tax in a year when compared with Chester because we pay a small amount to FTC (£38.47).  Without special expenses we would be paying for e.g. Chester's PCSOs, Christmas lights etc through CWaC Council tax and our own PCSO through FTC council tax.  That would be unfair and that is what the special expenses regime tackles.  Don't forget this is what Cllr Powell wants to do away with.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Thanks to everyone who has been out gritting

Tonight is slightly warmer than it has been recently. The CWaC gritting crews can have a lie in - they won't be needed tonight! I'm sure on a personal level they will be delighted - as they have been out gritting all our main roads twice per day for most of the last week. I think they've been doing a superb job. 

Whilst in the village earlier this afternoon I was thanked for having had the shopping area pavements gritted. I pointed out that whilst I'd put the arrangements in place the thanks was due to our volunteers who are gritting the pavements and side streets for us.  A big thank you is due to the crew at the leisure centre who have been taking a gritter for a walk around the town centre.

If anyone wants to help grit Frodsham FTC will give you free grit.  We've hand propelled gritters anyone can use at Overton Stores, Churchfields, Top Shop on Langdale Way and at the Leisure Centre.  All of our Primary Schools have them too - so come term time all the approaches to the schools can be gritted if the school community organises it.

If you want grit to spread on your side road or pavements just call the Town Council on 01928 735150.

Incidentally I've asked CWaC to refill all our grit bins.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Eleven Rail improvement schemes we need in Cheshire before HS2

At our recent Council meeting at CWaC we debated the improvements we desired both in and around Cheshire in advance of HS2.  The wish list emerging from Cheshire and North Wales has eleven projects.

The schemes are both listed below as well as being shown on the map.  They are:

  1. Electrification of the Crewe-Holyhead line - this passes through southern Cheshire and Chester before running along the North Wales coast to Holyhead;
  2. Chester - Wrexham line - rail lines to be restored to double track;
  3. Bidston - Wrexham line - to be upgraded and electrified;
  4. Halton Curve (Frodsham to Runcorn main line station) upgraded to bi-directional use for passengers;
  5. Chester - Manchester (Mid-Cheshire Line) greater frequency of service;
  6. Manchester Airport link line to the Mid-Cheshire Line;
  7. Link line to Middlewich from Mid-Cheshire Line to be upgraded to passenger grade with a new station built at Middlewich;
  8. Chester - Liverpool service via Halton Curve;
  9. Hooton - via Ellesmere Port, Helsby, Frodsham etc to Liverpool and North
  10. Chester - Warrington - line upgrade and electrification; and
  11. Winsford - Hartford service enhancements. 

Now you don't need to tell anyone in Frodsham just how important we are, and just how much we want our rail services to be improved and enhanced.  However I am delighted that CWaC (and our partner authorities) are arguing for 11 rail improvement schemes - 4 of which directly involve Frodsham and the services from our station.

These improvements aren't solely about railway lines - they also involve the associated infrastructure such as car parking.  In the council debate I raised exactly that issue and the need to ensure that, for example, car parking at Frodsham station is sufficient to meet the likely significantly increased demand.

I am delighted that as a council and with our neighbouring authorities we are being this ambitious.  At the moment just under 80% of us in Frodsham who go to work, do so by car.  These rail schemes are not only vital as part of building a 'northern power-house' - they are also important to ensure we have sustainable transport that is kinder to the environment.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Please pass this on to anyone you think could benefit from getting on-line.  It is one of the excellent services offered through Frodsham Library.  Don't forget we have free wi-fi there too.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Vision for Localism & Decentralisation in England

Message from Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP

Dear Cllr Andrew Dawson
Localism & Decentralisation in England
Today, William Hague has presented to Parliament a Command Paper on the implications of devolution for England. As well as setting out the Conservative Party’s support for English Votes on English laws, it outlines this Government’s achievements on localism and the Conservative Party’s stance on further decentralisation in England.

The Conservative Party embraces the Union of the United Kingdom and the continuing role of our national Parliament in Westminster as our law-making body. We back England’s traditional boroughs, towns, cities and counties, as opposed to Labour’s artificial regions. We endorse the tried and tested electoral system of First Past the Post. We embrace lower taxes and less red tape. We rally behind supporting enterprise and growth across the country. And we champion local democracy and local accountability, and the devolution of power from Europe and from Whitehall down to councils, and down further to neighbourhoods, parishes and individual taxpayers.

The full text of the Conservative Party’s route-map on localism is reproduced below.

“The Conservative position on further devolution within England is based upon the view that England is a great nation, proudly forming a constituent part of the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We believe that the Westminster Parliament is, and should remain, England's law-making body.

However, we also believe that, without a local voice, communities are made weaker because social responsibility and civic involvement are inhibited; local communities are strongest when everyone has a free and fair say in the decisions that affect them. This is why Conservatives in the coalition government have worked with their coalition partners to deliver significant decentralisation of power and finance within England. But we believe that there is more to do.

The Conservative Party takes the view that, in the years before 2010, central and regional government across England too often undermined local democracy and allowed people too little say over decisions that directly affected them. We argue that power should be decentralised down to the lowest appropriate level – down from Europe, down from Whitehall, to councils, to community groups and to individual taxpayers: giving power to the people.

Therefore in the next Parliament we wish to continue with the empowerment of neighbourhoods and parishes in England, not least through a huge further increase in neighbourhood planning. The aim is to extend community rights and thereby mobilise what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”, strengthening social and civic responsibility and building social capital – fostering the Big Society.

Conservatives believe that greater localism should be accompanied by greater local accountability, with democratic checks and balances to ensure the responsible use of greater local power. We will continue to support the tried and tested method of first past the post elections for the Westminster Parliament and for all levels of local council in England. But we believe that there should be greater use of direct democracy, such as allowing local people to hold local referendums on local issues. Conservatives also aim to extend and strengthen the transparency and accountability which the current Government has championed, and help support the press and public in holding local politicians to account.

In addition, we want to go further and deeper with the localist reforms that have taken place in England during this Parliament. This will include delivering more bespoke Growth Deals with local councils, including metropolitan mayors where locally supported, and working with Local Enterprise Partnerships and councils to promote jobs and growth. To save taxpayers’ money and improve front-line services, we propose to continue the drive to help local authorities join up different public services, taking forward projects such as Community Budgets, the Better Care Fund, joint working between the emergency services, and the Troubled Families programme.

Our view is that patterns of local government should reflect England’s local identities and traditions. We will champion England’s long-standing towns, boroughs, cities and counties, and will continue to oppose the imposition of artificial regional structures. We take the view that enabling locals to determine local structures locally will encourage civic and national pride across class, colour and creed – in our municipalities and neighbourhoods, in the nation of England and in the United Kingdom.

We strongly believe that localism must not be a way of imposing new taxes: the English taxpayer already pays too much tax. Instead, we wish to strengthen the fiscal incentives that councils have to support enterprise and growth – for example, by further extending the local retention of business rates. Following the course already set by the coalition government, in the next Parliament we will further reduce ring-fencing and ensure that councils are more self-sufficient – building on the fact that 70 per cent of council income is now raised locally.

Conservatives want all parts of England to enjoy prosperity and growth – north and south, shire and municipal, rural and urban. Rather than playing one part of England or Britain against another, we want to let local people in all parts of England keep the proceeds of local growth – thereby providing strong incentives for all local governments to work with local business to support jobs and improve quality of life locally.”

As we approach the general election and the final stage of this Parliament, I hope this presents a vision that the broad church of our Conservative & Unionist Party will welcome.

Yours truly,

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government