Council Tax: the lowest paid will be hit

Today, those of working age and in receipt of the Council Tax Benefit (CTB) will from April be required to pay 25% of their Council Tax. This has come about because the full membership of the council voted by a majority for this scheme to be implemented. That vote was carried by 55 for, 42 against.

An amendment to the proposals was tabled, which suggested the money found from the use of consultants etc to support the system in its current guise. This was defeated by 61 against and 41 for. This left only the 25% option.

It may be little comfort to those now affected by this change, but there is a ‘hardship fund’ of £1 million. However, it has not been clarified or details given as to how this scheme will be administered and the criteria to make you eligible. Which is worrying considering the impact of the changes this new CTB will have. Furthermore, this pot of money is only for one year. Which leads onto a further question; what happens after that?

There maybe a small glimmer of hope. As I blogged about previously on taking the fight to the Government and to look into the feasibility of taking the Government to court by way of a Judicial Review. My addition is:

In view of the inequitable and inappropriate nature of this cut to Council Tax Benefit which has been passed onto the Council by central government and which will have a devastating impact on some of the most vulnerable people in Cornwall, the Monitoring Officer be requested to explore fully the potential for bringing a claim for judicial review against the government in respect of this policy and that a report setting out the merits for such a claim be brought to the Council’s Budget meeting on 26 February.”

I am pleased to say my addition was carried by a large majority. In fact, so large only seven Councillors voted against this. It is always good to see this type of cross-party cooperation at work.

Council Tax Benefit – the alternatives and taking the fight to the Government

The proposals from Cornwall Council’s Cabinet on making all those of working age and in receipt of Council Tax Benefit (CTB) pay at least 20% of their Council Tax has not gone down well with those who will have to turn coal into a diamond to pay for this contribution. The council is in a tough position, thanks to the Government reducing the amount needed by £6m (12%).

But what are the alternatives? Well for the last two weeks I have looked line by line down various budgets and accounts looking for any money that could be better served on the CTB.  At first, I was heartened by the fact I found a pot of money that could be used and asked the Head of Finance if this money was a legitimate target. The reply was yes.

However, on looking more closely and with the help of the finance department, it soon became clear it was going to be difficult to make it pay in year one. Though from years 2/3 onwards, I could have got it down to a maximum contribution of 15%.

I could have made it work by reducing it to 20% contribution, but the pain in stripping so many projects of money would have been hard to justify. So, I have decided not to submit an alternative on those grounds alone. I have however, handed over all my data to others who are working on alternatives in the hope of this information might just help them in achieving a better solution that what is currently being proposed.

Fear not, I have not given up completely, as I have one further option. Granted it is fairly radical, and I am unaware of another Local Authority heading down this path. The option is to Judicial Review the Government on how it has handled and introduced this totally unfair scheme onto Local Authorities.

It might seem a barking idea to take the Government to court, but it is an option. So much so, late Friday I spoke to the CEO, and other Directors if they would support this course of action. They replied they would, and it was about time we stood up and took the fight to the Government. Maybe if Cornwall Council makes this stand, other LA’s will join us, and we end up with something the Americans call a Class Action.

More tomorrow…

Another Tory Goes at Cornwall Council

It has been a tough-time being a Tory at Cornwall Council. They lost a Council Leader (14 of them in voted in favour to remove), and a couple of Cabinet Members quit after that decision. Replacements stepped in, but last week a further two quit. One over the use of via a third-party of using what could be considered a lie detector test to see if they are not trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the council in claiming the Single Person Discount for Council Tax.

Now, it seems the Tory group has four groups within it. The former Leaders Shadow-Shadow Cabinet, Jim’s Courageous, Fiona’s Faithful, and the rest.

However, the latest resignation from both the Cabinet and Cornwall Council is the saddest news. George Trubody, the Councillor representing Rame, has stood down in both roles. The one of the reasons he has stood down is he has been offered a job that is impossible to turn down. Even though he really wanted to continue being a Councillor.

Credit where credit is due, George is a hard-working Councillor, especially at the local level. If rumours the are true, George would have been returned post May without putting out a leaflet because of all the hard-work he does. However, there is a real sadness to his resignation.

That sadness is because he could no longer afford to be a committed Councillor as he told many of his fellow Councillors in the Members room on the day he stood down. The reality of a hard-working Councillor having to step down in this way is tragic. George is also one of the few (I count six) who is under forty, and one of a dozen(ish) who is under forty-five. I wish George the best of luck, and maybe he will return to politics when he can afford to.

People have to ask themselves if they want committed, hard-working Councillors by paying them something to live on whilst carrying out their duties? Yes I know the recent rise has angered many of the public, but do we really want a Council full of people who have independent means to support their role? Surely an allowance should reflect the living wage of the area, but nothing more? I feel to do the role justice, you have to give it your full attention.

For anyone wishing to stand, they need to know the current allowance set for post-May is being challenged by a small group at Cornwall Council, who are attempting to overturn the full council’s decision. More on that later…

A week of Budget Scrutiny and recommendations

Last week, the various Scrutiny Committees of Cornwall Council had the chance to challenge and make additional recommendation on the Cabinets draft proposals for the 2013/14 Budget. In these draft proposals the recommendation is for a 1.97% increase in Council Tax.

I attended and took part ( I can only vote in the Children’s OSC) in all of the meeting as it gives you a greater understanding on all aspects of the Budget before the full council meeting where the entire membership votes on the budget. Furthermore, it was good to see the various committees really questioning the Budget, Officers and Cabinet Member behind the draft. Believe me, it is not an easy position to be in, as the choices and recommendations made will affect people. The draft Budget can be found HERE.

This is a summary of the recommendations from the various Scrutiny Committees:

Health and Adults OSC:

  • The Committee’s disappointment be noted in respect of the removal of the £4m uplift in the 2014/15 budget.
  • Cabinet should lobby central government for fairer funding formulations relating to the grants received by Cornwall

Children’s, Education and Families OSC:

  • The Committee’s strong concerns in respect of the cost of transport to this service and the way it is delivered and managed be noted.
  • The Committee’s concerns be noted in respect of the proposed saving relating to school based redundancy costs being funded from the dedicated schools grant, as it is considered that this could disproportionately affect some schools.
  • The Committee’s strong objection to the potential additional emergency saving of the removal of the Post 16 Transport Subsidy be noted.

Communities OSC:

  • Not to make the proposed changes to the Community Chest Budget and to fund this from budgets used to fund the Royal Cornwall Show and other events including Cornwall in Bloom and the Du Maurier Festival (Fowey Music and Dance Festival), the final details to be worked up by the Assistant Chief Executive.
  • To reduce the bureaucracy of the Community Chest Grant Process.
  • To support the licensing of all Houses in Multiple Occupation giving extra protection for vulnerable residents and creating an extra income stream.
  • To keep the staffing level of Environmental Health Officers under review.
  • That Members should be involved in any proposals for community libraries.
  • A review of the performance of all Leisure facilities be undertaken by the new Council.

Environment & Economy OSC:

  • Mandatory Planning Training for all Members of the Council, with this training also offered to Town and Parish Councils.
  • The costs associated with the planning enforcement of listed buildings and conservation areas.
  • Costs being recovered from planning applicants who choose to withdraw applications in their final stages.
  • If and when the supported bus network is prioritised, it be ensured that those areas with already restricted services, particularly rural areas, be given high priority.
  • Beach maintenance and cleansing be prioritised to give greatest importance to those where blue flags may be lost, resulting in an associated loss in income.
  • Any shortfalls in income from the parking service should not be met by the highways maintenance budget and investigations should be undertaken into other possible budgets.

Corporate Resources OSC:

  • The Leader considers as a matter of urgency when the Final Report of the Business Rates Informal Working Group may be added to the Cabinet’s agenda and that current recipients of Discretionary Rate Relief be written to at the earliest possible opportunity.

These recommendations from the Scrutiny Committees will now go back to Cabinet, who then will either take on the additional points and include them into the draft Budget, or ignore them. It will then be up to the Full Council to ratify the d(r)aft, make further changes only if they are approved by finance, or vote against it. If the council does vote against it by a majority, then the 151 Officer (Head of Finance) has the power to set the Budget without the council having a say.

 

Cornwall’s Cabinet Proposes Everyone Pays Council Tax

It is hardly surprising, but Cornwall Council’s Cabinet went for their ‘slightly’ altered option of making everyone of working age pay 25% (Option C) of their Council Tax if they are in receipt of the Council Tax Benefit (CTB). This means, on a Band D the occupants will be asked to pay around £274 pounds.

During the very short debate, we had each Cabinet Member in turn saying they do not agree with the proposals, but with a sigh, will vote for them. A North Korean show trial would have been proud if they witnessed today’s proceedings. Granted it is a difficult task, but there are other options.

It is disappointing that the list I blogged about yesterday is being used to ‘scare’ Councillors into voting for the 25% option. Furthermore, it is tragic when the  list of further cuts was made public, those who could have found themselves out of work, only got told of the proposals in an email an hour or two before the public release. Not very good for staff morale.

All in all, the Cabinet was done in an hour. It is now over to the full membership of the council to vote on this, or another proposal that may come forward.

Adopt a new Council Tax Benefit Scheme, or else

If it was not bad enough for the Cabinet to lose one of its key Portfolio Holders less than 24 hours before a hugely important meeting, the Cabinet and in turn the full membership of the council is at one of those crossroads. Either route is a dangerous one which will take the authority into hostile territory.

The choice is either take the option of adopting (Option A) the Governments Council Tax Benefit Scheme (CTB). Less the £6 million cut in funding when the Government handed down the powers to administer the scheme. Which means the council having find the shortfall to continue the scheme at the same level; adopt a new scheme (Option C) making all those of working age and in receipt of the CTB to pay 25% of the Council Tax bill; or pull one massive ace out of the deck (Option wing and a prayer) which finds the missing £6 million and does not result in people in receipt of CTB paying 25%.

My guess is the Cabinet will go with a slightly revised version of its previous decision, but with extra money to help those hardest hit. This is Option C. The extra funding consists of £150,000 to the Citizens Advice Bureau and £1 million into a fund called the Transitional Support Scheme.

However, if Option C is not supported, then Option A is the alternative. This will result in at least £5 million in extra savings having to be met. The list is brutal, and has been compiled reluctantly by Corporate Directors. The full list can be found HERE. The list covers the ‘saving’ and the impact of stopping or reducing certain services.

It includes the end of the localism team, or as many will know it, the Community Networks. The closure of up to four leisure centres if they cannot be self-sustaining. The end of Post-16 transport subsidy and the end of 24 hour cover at Newquay Fire Station. These are just a few of a very long list. If all the option in the list are included, the budget saving would be £5.86 million in the first year and £4.58 million in the second. Thus making up most of the shortfall which the Government has handed down to Cornwall Council.

It is not going to be an easy day for the Cabinet tomorrow. Whatever the outcome of tomorrow, it will either have to be ratified, or an alternative option is presented to the full council who will make the final decision.

Fiona Commits Seppuku

Out of the blue, another Cabinet Member resigns. This time is was not over a leadership ‘change’ but due to a method used when Cornish residents were being called to check if they are eligible for the single occupancy discount.

The Cabinet (now ex) Member in question is Fiona Ferguson, the former Finance Portfolio Holder. This could not come at a worse time as the council is going through its 2013/14 budget proposals, and tomorrow, the Cabinet meets decide on further recommendations post the defeat of its proposals on the new Council Tax Benefit Scheme.

The resignation letter is as follows:

Jim,

 As you know, it came to my attention that the contract let to Capita (before I took up my portfolio duties) to survey claimants of the single person’s council tax relief will include the use of “Voice Risk Analysis” (VRA) techniques when making phone calls to claimants.

These techniques are sometimes called “lie detector” tests.

It is clearly right that Cornwall Council takes a strong line against people who deliberately mis-claim tax benefits but in this case I am more concerned about the impact on the vast majority of honest claimants.

In passing, although this does not deal with my fundamental ethical objection, I note that the techniques used by Capita were trialled by the Department of Work and Pensions in 24 local authorities on the processing of Housing Benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.

 Their report issued in September 2010 said: “From our findings it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP.”

 I have discussed this matter with the Monitoring Officer.  He has advised me that, as this is an operational matter in relation to a contract that the Council has already entered into, he strongly advises me that I should not require  that this software is not used.  If, contrary to his advice, I maintain my stance that we must not use this software then officers will comply provided you also agree.

 You have made it clear to me that you will not agree.  Indeed, you have said that I will be ‘sacked’ if I inform members that this software will be used.

That will not be necessary.  Please accept my resignation with immediate effect. 

May I say that I have no reason whatsoever to believe that you were aware of this aspect of the contract before I drew it to your attention.  I also appreciate that you are in a difficult position in view of the Monitoring Officer’s advice.  But, I do not believe that his advice is correct and I cannot accept it on ethical grounds.  I also do not believe that it will help the Council to pursue fraud (which we must surely do) if the public think we are using this software.  Finally, I fear that it will be extremely damaging to our reputation.

Therefore, I am launching a petition to require any use of this type of technology to be approved by Full Council.

Fiona

It is certainly going to be an interesting Cabinet meeting tomorrow, as the Cabinet will be discussing parts of the budget, but without a Portfolio Holder for Finance. Unless of course someone gets a phone call from Jim tonight. It is certainly a dwindling pool within the Conservative Group to pick from.

Joint Venture and advertising for jobs

Things have gone a little quite in the JV front after the full council put the kibosh on the full out-sourcing deal. More will be known in the next few months on the actual deal between Cornwall Council, BT and which ever health partners (if more than one is still left) are still in at the end of the process.

However, the gravy train is still chugging along with this job advert on Cornwall Council’s website HERE

It makes you wonder, as no deal has been signed, nor has the full council agreed that deal. However, the Council is advertising this job…….

Car Parking: is it a business or service?

The question on whether car parking and associated charges is a business or service is one that has failed to be answered since the formation of Cornwall Council. This is despite numerous requests to senior officers and the CEO for it to be answered. I am pleased to say, in what I believe is a break-though, the panel has now been tasked (the panel did not have the remit to just do the work without being tasked) to investigate that question, and if the panel could go someway to answer it

I think everyone will agree, the high-street has changed, and will continue to change. The change is not just down to the economic climate either. The panel was told some startling figures on the real pressures facing the high-street. This information sourced via the DGLG and the Portas report showed 35-43% of all national sales are carried out using a supermarket. The Internet currently counts for 10% of national sales, but it is set to rise to 35% in 2020. So it is clear the pressures on the high-street will only get worse. I believe town centre needs to be more than retail if it has any chance of survival.

From this work a report has been completed looking into the question. The report is taken from two view points; those of parking services, and also from the view of a town centre expert. As you would imagine, the two sides have different views, but I am pleased to say some common ground. The report can be found HERE. And by reading it, it will give a clearer understanding of the panel’s response, and its recommendations to the Portfolio Holder.

So what did the panel make of the report, and what recommendations has it made to the Portfolio Holder? The panel made six recommendations as follows:

  • The Panel does not accept the principle described in the report that because town centres support private businesses then car parks should operate similarly, but recognises that centres also fulfil and essential social function encouraging social interaction, mobility, exercise and general well-being and that they serve to counter the increasing and general well-being and that they serve to counter the increasing trend to an isolated mode of living
  • The Panel notes and entirely concurs with the Cabinet decision not to increase tariffs in line with inflation in recognition of its consideration given to the importance of town centre vitality in Cornwall. The Panel considers this is an essential financial model to be retained for the foreseeable future
  • The Panel considers that is in principle wrong to separate the car parking service from the holistic function of Cornwall Council which is a service to maintain and enhance the well-being of its residents and businesses. Accordingly, the panel believes that it is inappropriate to designate all the larger car parks on purely business principles, but does consider that destination car parks may be considered in that way
  • The Panel believes that, unless a compelling individual case can be made, town centre car parks should not be defined or operated as businesses but considered an adjunct to the vitality and viability of the adjoining town centre and that parking charges should be set accordingly
  • Future consideration to be given whether car parking revenue should not be target led

The panel has also asked for a further report taking into consideration the five recommendations be prepared to allow future consideration of the issue of car parks as ‘services’ or ‘businesses’.

Now I know this report, or the recommendations that have been made, is not the magic wand to solve car parking issues, or save the town centres, but it is an important start, which should have been answered years ago.

Responses from the Second Public Meeting on the Proposals for Shrubberies Hill, Porthleven

I now have the feedback from the second public meeting on the proposals for a mixed-use site of local needs and open market that could be built on land adjacent Shrubberies Hill, Porthleven. To refresh, the details of the first consultation event is HERE.

The number of residents who attended the second consultation was 89 (signed the visitors book). Out of those attended, 54 provided feedback and here are those views on the revised proposals:

  • Supportive – 10 (18.5%)
  • Support but with reservations – 10 (18.5%)
  • Against – 31 (57.4%)
  • Unsure – 3 (5.6%)

Combining the two events, a total of 229 residents attended. Out of that figure, 33 residents attended both events and 14 of these left feedback on both occasions. These people’s view did not show a shift in opinion after seeing the revised proposals.

If you combine the two consultation results* the results are:

  • Total responses – 139
  • Supportive – 23 (16.54%)
  • Supportive but with reservations – 32 (23.2%)
  • Against – 69 (49.64%)
  • Unsure – 15 (10.8%)

Out of all the views and comments received,  50% of the feedback highlighted traffic, highways and access as a concern. Though again 50% of respondents felt that homes should be provided to local people at an affordable price. I feel if any plan is submitted, the highway/access issue must be addressed.

*Those who gave feedback twice only the recent view has been used. 

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