The arguments put forward by Chris Holmes of Dorchester last week in these columns regarding how councils could save money is not a new contribution although he expresses himself far more accurately and elegantly than previous contributors.
The solution to reducing councils’ costs by closing district councils and making Dorset, and for that matter Devon and Somerset for example, into a unitary council lies in the hands of our MPs and in particular Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Local Government.
Unfortunately, what we have to accept is MPs of whatever political persuasion need district and county councillors as energetic foot soldiers to canvas for them when it comes to general election time and to some minor extent keep their MPs up to date with constituents’ wants and needs.
Asking MPs to get rid of district councils or reduce the number of county councillors is similar to the dilemma facing the turkey and Christmas. In return for their allegiance and reputed devotion to their community, many councillors have turned their role into a long term money making part time occupation.
Many receive a not inconsiderable allowance as a county councillor but also an allowance as a district councillor which together come close to or higher than £30,000 pa. And for this salary, as council records reveal, not all councillors have a 100% attendance record at meetings but still draw their allowance.
Can one reasonably envisage councillors would want to lose their job? Incidentally, one little known fringe benefit for long serving councillors is a council pension on retirement. However, after 2015 councillors will no longer be eligible for the scheme Eric Pickles has ruled.
Eric Pickles has little powers to control district or county councils’ staffing and salary schemes. Hence it is not unusual to hear of senior officers in either type of council being paid well in excess of £110,000.
What the public is not really aware of is that come retirement many councils offer enhanced pensions to officers (including councillors) to include added years. Hence, a retiree at 60/62 years of age leaves with an untaxed lump sum of three times their annual pension as well as a half pay pension indexed linked for life. If they predecease a partner that person receives half of that annual pension indexed for life. Not a bad scheme and one which has its historical origins in the fact that civil servants and local government employees at one time were paid low salaries but as a compensation were given a reasonable pension. How times have changed!
The Local Government Association acknowledges council’s pension schemes are in debt and being forbidden to raise council tax by more than 2% without agreement it has come up with four possible remedies. First, the 25% discount for single occupancy of a domestic dwelling should not be given above Band D. Second, council tax banding is due for review in 2015/2016. Moving the values in each band should result in increased revenue to councils. Third, all seasonally occupied accommodation should carry a full year council tax charge. Fourth, no longer should halls of residence for students in the independent sector, universities etc be free of council tax but carry, as yet to be decided, some council tax charge.
There are more changes afoot after 2015. The government is already in confrontation with public sector pension schemes such as those enjoyed by the police, fire brigade, teachers and the NHS. All of which are totally funded by income tax payers. With life spans of more than 85 years on average, there are half a million people over 90 years of age, current public sector schemes are clearly unsustainable of the type earlier described for very much longer.
Common sense action should be that no public sector employee irrespective of their working salary or post should receive a pension in excess of the national average salary which currently stands at £27,000 with no half pension transfer to a partner permitted.
If our leaders continue to turn a tin ear to those who claim we must control the growth and cost of local councils without delay then the austerity measures that Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal are experiencing will seem like a picnic in the park to us in 2015-2020 and beyond.
Arthur Harada, Milborne Port