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Zero Percent?  Not on your life.

Zero Percent - Not on your lifeWe're having an advance look at the Council Tax increases we're likely to be facing this year.

The promise that was made before the election (and since, but, as usual, you have to read the words carefully in the "since" period), was that the Conservatives will deliver a zero percent tax increase this year, as they did last year.

That's not quite as hard as it sounds, because our very own St Eric Pickles has handed Fylde an extra grant equivalent to the 2.5% we might otherwise have expected.

In other words, for the last two budgets, the 2.5% spending increase Fylde might have planned to make has come from our left-hand pockets (through national taxation), rather than our right-hand pockets (from where the Council Tax is taken).

But Fylde - as deceptive as ever with its doublespeak - is not even satisfied with that, as we'll show later in the article.

But first we're going to have a look at what St Annes Town Council has been up to.

20% Plus Increase On the Way in St Annes.
Residents of St Annes are not going to be best pleased when they get their new Council tax bills next month.

The precept issued by St Anne's on the Sea Town Council will most likely show an increase of more than 20%, and depending on what looks to be a mistake in the Town Council's sums , it could be as high as 31%

We accept that in cash terms, it's only proposed to go from £11.19 to £14.70 for the year, but in this age of austerity, the principle involved is going to be up there with the Bankers Bonus' for the public's 'Wally of the month' accolade.

It's not even as thought we're getting some hugely worthwhile new service or facility out of the increase.

The Town Clerk's report to the meeting that considered and approved the increase says "These [their plans for the year] show a proposed net expenditure of £149,851. By adding a further to sum of £149 to reserves [ just to round the numbers off nicely! ] this produces a proposed Precept of £150,000 which equates to £14.70 per Band D Payer compared to £11.19 in the current year. The increase of £2.92p represents a percentage rise of 20.70%."

Town Clerk's Report. Click to enlarge

click to enlarge

We're struggling a bit with the numbers here. Admittedly we're not the best at doing sums, but if we take £11.19 off £14.70 it leaves us with £3.51, not £2.92. And that makes it a percentage rise of just over 31% in our book.

Either way, whether it's 21% or 31%, it's a lot more than zero percent.

To be fair, there *are* some new items in their budget for this next year.

Empire building ones.

Having already has increases in his hours over the short time the Town Council has been in existence, their Clerk is now changing from being a part time employee to a full time one, and they're planning for a new "...part time post of Promotions Assistant [who] will work 2 days a week. This person would also be required for additional duties, as required, including acting as the Town Mayorís Secretary."

There's also going to be a new Civic Regalia Pendant for the Deputy Town Mayor.

Some of the cost increases are not actually down to increases in service. This next bit is also from the report. It's about the Town Council newsletter / brochure (which aims to publish 4 times a year). The Clerk writes: "The cost of the 3 issues that have been published this year has exceeded the budget and have not produced the required advertising income. In light of this outcome I have increased the budget next year to £10k and reduced the advertising income to £2k leaving a net budget of £1,750 for each of the 4 editions. It may be necessary to look more closely at the cost and methods of production."

counterbalance had a look at the St Anne's Town Council budget in 2009/10 when the precept went from £3.92 to £8.44. We criticised the additional spending at that time, saying it was on staffing and overheads and not on practical service delivery items.

Perhaps conveniently for some, the budget papers for that 12th January 2010 meeting are no longer attached to the minutes on the Town Council's website, but we recorded this from the Clerk's report and budget proposals that were available at the time (See St Anne's Town Council Budget: 2009 -10).

"...the introduction [to the precept figure] talks about an (unspecified) increase in hours for the clerk, and the appointment of an additional part time officer to provide a secretarial service to the town mayor, community development, and to cover for the clerk (presumably in his absence)."

So when the post of Community Development Officer was created, that was the one that was going to provide " a secretarial service to the town mayor."   Now that same argument is being used again to justify yet another staffing expansion.

Dear God!

What *does* this Council think it is doing?

The report goes on to say... "It is considered prudent to Precept for the Town Councilís full proposed expenditure at this time and to keep General Reserves at level at which it would be possible to fund the acquisition of the Public Offices in Clifton Drive should these become available during 2012/13...."

The report concludes "...Although the government have introduced legislation to require referendums in case of excessive Council Tax Increases it has been announced that this will not apply to Parish Councils next year. Although in percentage terms the rise is considerable higher than inflation the total increase of £2.92 is modest in relation to the total Council Tax bill.
P Jackson. Town Clerk"

Sadly, the last bit is right.

St Eric's legislation can't be implemented fast enough to prevent this increase being an assessed as an 'excessive' increase that would trigger a referendum. (we can just imagine how well a vote would go to support increasing the Clerk to a full time post and giving the Town Mayor a secretary).

In a letter to us, the Rt Hon St Eric Pickles' Parliamentary Under Secretary - Andrew Stunnell - said "...so town and parish councils will not be required to hold a referendum in respect of any council tax increases in this year. However, he [St Eric] has made it clear that he intends to revisit this issue next year, having considered the extent to which local precepting authorities have exercised restraint in relation to council tax in 2012-13"

We figure a few folk in St Annes will be making representations to him to make sure he does just that.

For those that might want to, the Band D precepts of St Annes Town Council since its inception have been:

  • 2005/05 £0.96 (formation year, so no programme to implement)
  • 2006/07 £4.05 (+322%) (First 'proper' year precept)
  • 2007/08 £3.95 (-2.5%)
  • 2008/09 £3.92 (-0.8%)
  • 2009/10 £8.44 (+115%)
  • 2010/11 £8.98 (+6.4%)
  • 2011/12 £11.19 (+24.6%)
  • 2012/13 £14.70 (+31.4%) (Predicted)

These increases are not necessarily wrong of course. It depends to a large extent on what St Annes taxpayers want their Town Council to be and to do.

The research done by the group that brought the St Annes Town Council into being found that what people wanted was for it to act as an advocate for the residents. They wanted it to ensure the views of the people of St Annes were properly conveyed to organisations like Fylde Borough Council, the Police, the County Council, the Health Authority and so on. They were not looking for it to provide additional services and facilities - although to be fair, there was a view that things like improved levels of street sweeping and suchlike might be worthwhile paying a bit more for.

Readers will recognise that the sort of activity necessary to act as an advocate doesn't cost a lot, and the £4-odd a year they were precepting was covering it nicely.

But then the new Clerk came, and St Annes residents also elected a new council.

Out went founding members like Jon Harrison, David Meldrum, Mike Knowles, and Roger Walker, and in came Tony Ford, Angela Jacques, Bob Fielding and Jill Sumner.

Those changes combined to produce a desire for, and new a majority of Town Councillors willing to support a change of emphasis to 'do' more things - and to increase the tax charge in order to do them.

Now, as readers will know, counterbalance is a great supporter of Town and Parish Councils. We regard them as the bedrock of democracy in the UK. All the ones in Fylde except St Annes operate on plain common sense and human judgement. They are not policy driven. They are groups of local people who come together, roll up their sleeves and the Parish Councillors themselves do things that benefit their community.

Most especially, they usually have the pulse of, and can accurately articulate the concerns of, their residents. That costs next to nothing, and we applaud every one of them that does it. The Town or parish Councillors also do much of the work of the their council.

The chief function of their Clerk is that of a secretary / administrator. To write letters for them and keep their books in order. The Clerk's job is not to propose what the Council might or should 'do' (except to warn them if they are about to step outside their powers). The impetus for what happens comes from the elected Councillors articulating the desires of local people, not as suggestions from the Clerk.

But not in St Annes.

Sadly, instead of being the common-sense Town Council it began life as, it is gradually being subverted into a miniature version of a Borough Council, with a complement of officer advisors, and policy-driven decisions.

We lay the blame for this squarely at the door of the Clerk they appointed, and at the doors of those Town Councillors who failed to encourage him to find a post elsewhere.

To be fair, on paper, his credentials were impeccable, and we might well have chosen him from those who applied. However, we've enough experience of such matters to say he wouldn't have stayed with us beyond the end of his initial probationary period.

Why? well, firstly, it's the underlying agenda he is driving. We predict that direction will, if it is not reversed, see St Annes Town Council levying a precept of over £100 in not too many years. Readers should look at the Town Council of  Leighton Linslade (where the present Clerk came from) as a model. They're used to precepts of £100-plus there.

Secondly, the method being used to manage the St Annes Town Councillors looks like the oldest trick in the book to us. It's the old Roman "Bread and Circuses" diversion for the Plebs. Give the Town Councillors matters of micro-importance that puff up egos and turn people's heads to keep them distracted and happy - things like visits to Royal Garden Parties or having a Mayor and Deputy Mayor (with a chain, and ceremony, and an allowance) rather than a Chairman - whilst at the same time taking the weight of all the difficult (for which read important) decisions from their shoulders and onto those of the officers.

What this ends up with is a Council that is not "of the people by the people", but of the officers - because they know best what the people need.

In our view it's a travesty of what a Parish Council should be. In fact, we say it's almost the exact opposite.

We also think this is what Borough Council Conservative Peter Wood was alluding to in his recent, slightly cryptic letter to the Express, where he said...

"I welcome the recent decision by Fylde Borough Council to transfer responsibility of open spaces to Kirkham Town Council and therefore bringing their development and management a step nearer to the people of Kirkham.

I think It Is important that as we learn about the implications and changes brought about by the Localism Bill that members of the Fylde's Town and Borough Councils tread carefully and with caution.

When people working for the council lose their jobs or have their salaries cut in order to make savings, the public and the media, will have no patience for what they see as frivolous spending; perceptions of empire building or standing in the way of commerce or common sense.

So when the Council Tax Bills come out this year, any increases through Town Council precepts, that aren't off-set by savings elsewhere will be seen as a betrayal of trust, I doubt there will be any distinction as to whether the new costs are caused by a Town or a Borough Council. Failure to heed this will ensure judgement will be and should be swift and unforgiving of any elected member.

Coun Peter Wood St Annes"

As we've seen in the last Snippets article, he has been chided for writing this to the paper and all the Conservatives have been reminded they must not contact the press on such matters without first clearing it through the Conservative's press officer.

We say power to his elbow.

But of course it will be inconvenient for some, because St Annes Town Council now has a significant Conservative majority. In fact, to our great sadness, most of its members stood on an overtly party political ticket at the last election and were successful. (It now has 8 Conservatives, 2 Lib Dems and 2 who gave no party allegiance) (see Election Results 2011 for more details)

Prior to the election, and speaking for the Fylde Conservatives, Leader David Eaves told the Gazette "People are realising that through a zero percent council tax increase this year and the promise of a zero percent increase next year we continue to give good value for money while maintaining frontline services."

Maybe that doesn't apply to Conservative controlled Town Councils.

Or maybe they don't want folk being reminded of what was said at the time.

But some election candidates were even stronger in what they said.

Several of those who stood for the Town Council made a great play of it in their election literature. Cllr Christine Akeroyd (who was a founding member of St Annes Town Council), and her sister Cllr Angela Jacques (who also served the term before this one) are both current Town and Borough Councillors  having been re-elected last May. Both began their "In Touch - Election Special" newsletters with "St Annes Town Council has been in existence for 6 years. Since it was formed the Town Council Tax has risen over 1,000%."

Both went on to say "On many occasions the two Conservative Councillors on the Council of 7 were outvoted..."  (before the last election there were only two Conservatives out of seven councillors. Now there are eight out of twelve)

Both concluded by saying "Conservatives do not have enough votes on the Town Council to ensure good housekeeping.   Elect Conservatives on May 5th to deliver better value for your money."

Borough and Town Councillor Gail Goodman's "In Touch with Ashton Ward" leaflet promised "Council Tax Frozen For Two Years And Services Saved" It had a sub-head of "0% Increase this year and next"

And Borough and Town Councillor Cheryl Little's "In Touch from Cheryl Little - Election Special" leaflet had the same quotes as her Conservative colleagues Cllrs Akeroyd and Jacques about the Town Council tax rising by 1,000% and there not being enough Conservatives to produce decision that ensure good housekeeping.

With the Town Council supporting a 20% or 30% rise this year, they must think we have short memories and attention spans. Or maybe they think the increase is "good housekeeping" and "delivering better value."  We disagree. And we cite the following example of what good housekeeping should be.

Part of the rationale for the Town Council's increase this year, is to have some money on one side in case they can buy the Public Offices from Fylde Borough Council. We're prompted to recall the proposition of former and founding Town Cllr Jon Harrison who suggested in 2006 that the Town Council should start a 'sinking fund' to buy the public offices.

He said any money the Town Council had left over at the end of a year should be put into the fund and, over the years, it would grow into a tidy sum they could use for offices.

We regard that as an eminently sensible suggestion. It was adopted and was working well until after the next election when the Town Council (by that time sadly, *without* Cllr Harrison) developed much more grandiose ideas and spent that fund.

So now they're taxing us in advance for it - even though they don't know whether they will be able to buy it or not.

That doesn't seem to us to be anywhere near as sensible.

So when Borough Councillor Peter Wood talked about - members of the Fylde's Town and Borough Council's needing to tread carefully, and the public and the media having no patience for what they see as frivolous spending or perceptions of empire building; and when he warned that any Town Council increases that aren't offset by savings elsewhere will be seen as a betrayal of trust, and where he claimed there was no distinction between Town or Borough Council's in this regard, and that failure to heed this would ensure swift and unforgiving judgement of any elected member - you can see why it it's likely not to have gone down well with some of  his colleagues.

We're curious to see how well it goes down with the St Annes electorate, especially now, since the last election, when the Conservatives have a 2:1 overall majority on St Annes Town Council and they've managed to introduce a 20% plus tax rise.

We figure quite a few will be writing to St Eric Pickles about it once the figures are published.

Lancashire County Council
Are expected to produce a true zero% increase.

Lancs. Fire and Rescue Service
Are expected to produce a true zero% increase.

Lancashire Police authority
Are expected to produce a 2.5% increase.

Fylde Borough's Own Tax Rise
The statements put out by Fylde on this matter are a bit more difficult to grasp, (they're intended to be, so you don't understand what's going on), but bear with us.

Essentially the question is: "When is a zero % rise in Council Tax not a zero % rise in Council Tax?"

And the answer is "When it's Fylde that are making the zero % rise"

On Council Tax demands next month, Fylde's zero percent tax rise will show up as a 4.99% increase for folk in St Annes.

That's just as we predicted in 'Tax Con: Third Time Lucky' back in January

The increase will vary in other parts of Fylde,

Fylde's Council Tax will likely increase in St Annes from £138.00 to £144.89 - an increase of £6.86

Also in St Annes, it's expected that the other charge made by Fylde Council, (the Special Expenses that we've been paying for open spaces maintenance over the last few years), will go down by 2.82% from £69:91 to £67.94 - a reduction of £1.79.

So what's going on?

Well, taking the (easier to grasp) Special Expenses matter first, Fylde have decided that it won't cost as much to look after the parks and open spaces in Lytham and St Annes next year as it did this year. So the overall cost for Lytham and St Annes has gone down from £1,287,182 to £1,255,502 (£31,680 less). This is either because of changes in the grounds staff working methods or because the overheads have been reduced)

So that's fine

Well, it would be, except for the fact that Lytham is being charged the same as St Annes and the costs are different.

Last year the total for Lytham and St Annes was £1.28m. We worked out the split (and had our arithmetic confirmed by the Council's Auditors). St Annes was £737k (about 58% of the total) and Lytham was £543k (about 42% of the total)

But the actual costs of doing the work were: in St Anneís £629,069, and in Lytham £687,133.

The outcome of that is that in 2010/11, because both towns were charged the same sum in Special Expenses,  St Annes residents were 'overcharged'  by £10.42 and Lytham's were 'undercharged' by £18.60 * (These two omitted paras inserted 1.3.12 Please see end of article)

So although FBC now know how much it's costing each community, (amazingly, they didn't know until last year) they haven't (at least so far) told anyone that, and Lythamites are being subsidised by St Annes folk when it comes to looking after open spaces.

But the more complicated part comes next

FBC also charged Kirkham residents a 'Special Expense' sum for open spaces maintenance. That *was* calculated separately from Lytham St Annes, an is expected to be about £137k overall for next year (Kirkham's cost for next year is also down a bit on the previous year, just like Lytham St Annes).

But Kirkham have agreed (or we think they have - there was a secret item at the last Cabinet meeting which related to the Kirkham Asset Transfer that could have changed things) that from April they will take over responsibility for open spaces maintenance in Kirkham and they (Kirkham Town Council) will make a charge to Kirkham residents.

So far so good.

So you'd expect the next step would be for Fylde Borough will drop the Special Expenses charge to folk in Kirkham wouldn't you?

Have they done that?

Well 'yes' and 'no'

Yes, they won't be making a Special Expenses charge to folk in Kirkham.

But No, they won't be dropping the charge.

As we have long predicted, they're going to re-classify it as general spending and spread it over ALL the other taxpayers in Fylde.

In effect, they're adding it into the Council Tax part of our bills rather than calling it a Special Expense in Kirkham.

That will increase the Council Tax in St Annes by 4.99%

And that's why a 4.99% increase is actually a 0% percent rise according to the Finance Portfolio Holder - Princess Karen Buckley.

They've not increased the combined Council Tax and Special Expenses figure overall, they've just re-allocated what they WERE charging folk in Kirkham, and they're going to spend it on something else that we ALL have to pay for.

So they will be able to say - but we're only asking ON AVERAGE for the same amount of tax from Fylde residents, so there's no increase (it's just that we've changed who we collect what from)

Holding that view, they'll probably try to argue that  it's Kirkham Town Council who are charging the 'extra' tax

Most folk would think this was deceptive, deceitful and downright unlawful.

And if you think its bad enough now, just wait until the £137k at Kirkham becomes the £1.27 MILLION that open spaces maintenance  costs in Lytham and St Annes, and they try to get all (or even some) of that redistributed next year or whenever.

There's no doubt this con trick by Fylde Council is deceptive and deceitful.

It shows yet again, just as it did with Melton Grove, how much trust we can place in the administration of David Eaves.

Zero Percent

- And that's a real zero percent.

Dated:   29 February 2012

UPDATE 1.3.12
Thanks to our eagle-eyed reader who spotted the omission of part of the article which has now been included above. The table below shows how the figures are derived for those who want to see the workings. They're taken from the Asset Transfer report of last year.
Band D equivalent
Taxbase 2010/11
Special Expenses
Raised @ £70.20
Actual cost
of the work
Over / (Under)  charge
Total       Band D
St Annes  10,522.98 £738,701 £629,069 £109,632 £10.42
Lytham  7,738.1 £543,206 £687,133 (£143,927) (£18.60)

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