More of your letters - March 8

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A further selection of your letters from the Bury Free Press of March 8.

Council Tax will have to rise

Last week, St Edmundsbury Borough Council approved a budget which, for the fifth year running, kept Council Tax at its previous level. Good news, you may say, and as a Council Taxpayer myself, facing ever-increasing household bills, I agree. But is it really? Well, yes – and no.

There is no doubt that this is a well run council which, over the years, has spent its money and husbanded its resources carefully. It is debt free, has cut waste and increased efficiencies year on year. So why am I not actually rejoicing?

To misquote Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, let me count the reasons:

1 - The Council Tax freeze has been enabled by a time limited Government grant, the ongoing effect of which is that the baseline figure on which the Government will assess future Council Tax ‘grants’ is artificially low. This will result in intolerable strains on the council’s budgets in future years .

2 - The price of the freeze has been great – both financial (redundancy payments have shrunk the council’s reserves) and human –good and dedicated people have lost their jobs.

3 - Although core public services have, so far, been protected in St Edmundsbury, this has not been the case at county level. And even here discretionary spending has had to be cut. This includes such extravagances as grants to the Citizens Advice Bureau and charities such as Gatehouse (I declare an interest as chairman).

4 - We all know the Government’s agenda is to shrink the public sector, presumably to nothing. Do we really believe this will be for our benefit? Or is it for the benefit of big business?

5 - They are doing this principally through penalising ‘extravagant’ councils, forcing them to reduce public services to the bone. Councils are being forced to transfer their services to profit-making providers whose primary duty is not to those they serve.

6 - The financial pressure on the council makes it more likely they will listen to the

siren song of developers and allow inappropriate development in our town and country (see Vision 2031).

7 - The council will be forced to look at selling some of its assets – assets which should be preserved for future generations. In the case of land, is it likely that this will be used where it should be: for providing badly needed social housing?

The fact is that it is unrealistic to expect Council Tax to remain at its present level. A small increase would have eased pressure on the budget, maybe enabled some more funding to promote growth, build houses, make our lives better. The majority of houses in St Edmundsbury are Band C and below, i.e. their Council Tax bills are the lowest so an increase would not have had a great impact on them.

We have to decide whether we want our public services or not? 
Do we want clean, safe streets? Beautiful public open spaces like the Abbey Gardens? Play spaces for our children? Good schools? Decent housing for all?

We are sleepwalking to a place where none of those will necessarily exist. We have fallen for a gigantic con trick: “Public bad, Private good”. It is time to say enough is enough.

-- Julia Wakelam, Green Party councillor for Risbygate ward

SubsidiSIng the well off

At the full borough council last week, I asked: “Is it acceptable for the less well-off to subsidise the entertainment of the better-off at The Apex?”

On behalf of our council, Cllr Sara Mildmay-White replied, treating the chamber to a 4½ minute lecture on other examples of unfairness in the UK and across the world. This speech was received with rapturous applause and table thumping by some councillors. If I had not witnessed this, I would never have thought in 2013 councillors, who after all are elected to represent their constituents, could be so uncaring and unfair.

There are three very simple solutions to stop Council Tax-payers being soaked for the annual losses of approx £750,000 by the Apex. The

programme would not need to change and could be expanded.

(1) Sell; or (2) lease the building; or, if council refuse, (3) simply take the losses of two years’ ago, divide this sum by the number of ticket sales the following year and add this amount as a supplement to the current ticket prices, updating this calculation annually. What could be simpler or fairer?

Readers will welcome Cllr Mildmay-White’s reply on behalf of our council as to how they plan to stop the haemorrhaging of our cash at such an alarming rate.

-- Simon Harding, Bury St Edmunds

There are just too many councillors

A lot of warm-air about councillor expenses has been expended in recent week.

Perhaps, though, people are missing the point. The problem isn’t so much that councillors’ salaries – aka ‘allowances’ (which are about £10k pa for a county councillor). Nor are their expenses a really vital issue – many don’t bother to claim. Rather, it’s the sheer number of councillors we have that is too high. Suffolk County Council has 75 councillors. The county has six districts, including St Edmundsbury, which have scores of councillors each. In all, several hundred paid councillors in Suffolk – and that’s not counting town and parish councillors, who, to be fair, are unpaid.

Do we need so many councillors? Having served for four years, I think the answer is no. There is massive duplication between local and county councillors and, in some areas, there isn’t enough for them all to do. Having watched the system in action, I think that no more than 40 councillors would suffice for the whole of Suffolk, serving as one council. In Bury St Edmunds this would mean we had two rather than four councillors who covered everything.

As well as cutting the number, we should also give councillors far more actual responsibility for budgets and getting things done at local level. For example, from my own patch, it should not take a decision from a cabinet member in Ipswich to decide whether or not we put in double-yellow line on the streets outside the West Suffolk Hospital. Time and again, people tell me they want councillors have the power to act, rather than trying to beg local improvements from people who have not been elected locally.

--Cllr Craig Dearden-Phillips, Member for Hardwick Division