So from today we are all paying more council tax. The near 4% rise in council tax was conveniently split into two elements.
2% for adult social care – the Tory part of the rise. The council wasn’t forced to make this increase but given the pressures on the care budget and the increases in carers wages due to the living wage, I’m supportive of this element of the rise. Care workers are obscenely underpaid for such an important job. Of course that does not mean the council should not continue to look at ways to make things more efficient in the Adult and Children’s Services department.
The second part of the council tax hike – the 100% Labour-run council responsibility is the bit I have a real issue with.
If this money, being taken out of residents pockets, and therefore out of the economy, were being spent to protect frontline services which would otherwise be lost, I could be convinced to support it. However, it is simply not being spent on that.
Rather, the following is happening:
- WASTE: The council is still wasting millions on over management and which had it fixed years ago when we made recommendations would have saved many millions. It is still delaying further merging of departments, which would have allowed a delay at least in this tax rise.
- MISMANAGEMENT: Some departments still have crazy working practices. I know of one, where the checking and rechecking of forms for spending money on schemes is costing more than the schemes themselves – utter lunacy. In other areas the Council is letting everyone down – staff, residents, taxpayers. We are still not referring staff with mental health issues to occupational health immediately. One staff member wasn’t referred for 303 days! The average is around 50 days. This is appalling and it has been and is costing an absolute fortune in lost work hours. We have managed to get the Council to agree to change this, but half a year on since we put the proposals, we are still looking at many months before anything concrete on the ground. Sickness absence levels are running at crazyly high levels, which even Labour councillors lament. Any organisation which treats its staff in such an atrocious way will always have a pile of other problems lurking under the surface.
- RESERVES: The council has over £200 million in over 50 different reserves, and whilst some of this money is prudent to hold, most of it never gets spent from one year to the next, and with every year that passes we find we have even more in the bank. So no need for the Council tax hike this year.
- FLAWED PRIORITIES: Because of the reserves hikes and a flawed investment strategy some services really do suffer – such as the state of our roads and footpaths – when they simply do not have to. The Council can borrow at ridiculously low rates at the moment, and could then spend millions of pounds on improving our roads and footpaths with no risk to the balance sheet or simply use its reserves directly to put more into properly fixing this infrastructure. By getting the worst areas fixed properly, we would save money on short term useless slap and stick repairs. Equally, the Council could have delayed action on some savings. The closure of the DLI museum is a shocking indictment of the Labour Party’s desire to eliminate the history of the County. Had it held a consultation to listen to all alternative views, perhaps a solution which actually made money and protected this asset could have been found.
- INACCURATE BUDGETTING: Having looked at the budget plans for the financial year starting this week, there is so much slack, over-estimating of costs and the like, that the whole council tax hike may end up sat in reserves rather than being productive in the County. One more or all of the following have occurred each year since the new authority was formed: Overestimates on energy, price or borrowing costs, underestimates on income or internal efficiency savings. When reserves go from the tens of millions to over £200 million, there isn’t a single Labour councillor can deny this fact and keep a straight face.
What is very clear is that with the Labour Party in charge at Durham County Council, waste, mismanagement, manipulation of the truth, and flawed priorities are only going to continue to let down the people of County Durham.