councils



For a long time I’ve wanted an excuse as a (very) ex-town planner to write about completely useless additions to our public spaces. I came across one on the web today – a ‘black blob’ glass entrance to the great city of Manchester’s central library. You can read all about it here, where the author points out that it cost £3.5 million, has virtually no function, and has to have the word ENTRANCE written in large letters above so people know what it is.

This municipal folly brought to mind one of my home city Aberdeen’s own follies – ‘improvements’ to the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC), shown in this photo, and made some time ago.

aecc3

A bit of history for non-Aberdonians. You’ll know the city is the ‘offshore oil capital of Europe,’ and a power of good that industry has done for the city and whole area. Shortly after the industry took root its first trade show was held – in tents on a site that turned muddy when it rained. There was widespread agreement that this was a nonsense and the aforementioned AECC was built. Not an architectural masterpiece but it fulfilled a function. Time moved on, it became a little long in the tooth and it was renovated and extended.

Many of the renovations no sensible person could argue with – more exhibition space, better facilities in the permanent building shown in the photo, and an office block that included rented space.

Also part of the changes were the additions shown on the right hand side of the photo, the tower and covered arch.

Here a little explanation is needed.

The main entrance to the centre is under the letters ‘AECC’ you can just about see centre-left on the photo. Vehicles can draw up in front of that area, and there’s a covered walkway to the entrance and reception area beyond. All very sensible.

You can also just see the day-to-day car park for the centre off to the right of the photo, beyond the arch and tower (there are larger car parking areas further away for when there’s a major event on).

First, the tower. When it was built it was heralded as an observation tower and tourist attraction. Visitors would be able to ascend in a lift and see out over the city from the deck at the top. Given the location of the AECC on the city’s northern fringe, I’m not sure you’d get much of a view of the city, although beyond the exhibition halls and tarmacced area around the centre there is an attractive coastline. But, and I need to emphasise this THE TOWER HAS NEVER BEEN OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. The initial reason given, if my memory is correct, was fear of terrorist attacks happening around the time of construction. But they faded and it never opened. The tower’s only use to my knowledge has been for an advertisement that ran up it for a local commercial radio station but long removed.

Now the real cracker, the arch. Entrance to the arch from the outside is at its right hand side, near the tower. Go inside and you are confronted with an escalator. The escalator takes you up, there’s a short walk then another escalator takes you down … to the main entrance and reception area. Apart from looking a bit better than a row of office windows, the arch HAS NO FUNCTION WHATSOEVER. Although I haven’t visited the centre for a while I have never seen anyone use this way in to the centre. Why would you would you when it just makes your walk to the reception area from the car park twice as long?

Anyhow, the whole nonsense might became a small foot note to local history in a few years’ time as a new exhibition centre is planned in a more sensible location near the city’s airport. Let’s hope that one respects the old architectural dictum that form should follow function.


This post may seem ironic to people working in local government in England where both their functions and the funding they receive from central government to provide them have been and are being so drastically cut. The actual circumstances I set out apply directly to Scotland (I pick up the political aspects of those circumstances in my other blog). But the arithmetic and the issues are relevant anywhere a higher level of government helps fund a lower level.

People don’t like paying taxes. They especially don’t like paying them when it’s very obvious (unlike, say, VAT) and when a bill for them arrives, literally, through the door. And they don’t like paying more taxes in times of inflation or when they feel hard pressed.

Local government, throughout the UK, has for a long time received most of its funding directly from central government. How much they get and why is a complex story. But crudely speaking, about 70% of council funding has come from central government. Some of the rest comes from income (parking fines, housing rents and so on) but much of this is, to use the jargon, ring-fenced for specific purposes. So, also crudely speaking, we can say that councils have received about 30% of their income from local taxes – once upon a time domestic rates, briefly and notoriously the poll tax, and now council tax.

Because of its visibility, people are very conscious of increases in council tax levels. They don’t like it. They moan to their elected representatives at all levels and the government comes under pressure to ‘do something’ about it.’ The ‘something’ they’re sometimes tempted to do is institute a council tax freeze, paid for by them in exchange for certain commitments by councils (I examine the Scottish example in my other blog).

There are two unintended consequences of a council tax freeze of this sort.

First, over time central government funds a greater and greater percentage of council spending. The following table illustrates this.

If

  1. a council service costs £100 in year 1 and annual inflation is 3%
  2. and it is funded 70% by the government, 30% by council tax
  3. and the government agrees to pay for the maintenance of that service at existing levels providing the council agrees not to increase council tax

this is what happens.

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6 Year 7
TOTAL COST 100.0 103.0 106.1 109.3 112.6 116.0 119.5
Government pays 70.0 73.0 76.1 79.3 82.6 86.0 89.5
Council tax pays 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0
% paid by government 70.0 70.8 71.7 72.6 73.4 74.1 74.9

So in seven years, in this simplified example, central government funding increases from 70% of a council’s spending to virtually 75% (three-quarters) and the longer the freeze continues, the higher that percentage will creep.

I spell out some of the detailed consequences of this in Scotland in my other blog that I’ve already mentioned. But the general point, as the old saying has it, is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. And the more he pays, the more he calls the tune.

The second unintended consequence is that wealthy people benefit more from a council tax freeze than poor people.

This can be illustrated by the situation where I live, in Aberdeen. There are seven council tax bands based (historically) on the value of your house or flat. Each band is set as a percentage of the middle Band, D, a sort of rough average.

The table below shows what the council tax is in 2014/15 for the lowest, ‘average’ and highest property bands in Aberdeen. If the council tax freeze were to continue for seven years, council tax would stay at those levels – £820.26, £1230.39 and £2460.78 respectively. The table shows what council tax would be if inflation continued throughout at 3% per year and there were no freeze.

2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21
Band A 820.26 844.87 870.22 896.33 923.22 950.92 979.45
Band D 1230.39 1267.30 1305.32 1344.48 1384.81 1426.35 1469.14
Band H 2460.78 2534.60 2610.64 2688.96 2769.63 2852.72 2938.30

From this information it is easy to calculate what people in each band would save with a freeze (the difference between 2014/15 and 2015/16 + 2014/15 and 2016/17 etc)

Band A 543.45
Band D 815.06
Band H 1692.54

So the taxpayers in the highest council tax band save £1149.09 more than those in the lowest band.

You may object to this on the basis that the council tax is based on housing prices not incomes. What about the little old lady with a small income who lives in a large house inherited from her parents? What about the self-made millionaire who never moved out of his council house? Of course extreme cases like this exist. But on balance we can be sure with some confidence that in most cases the value of the property that people live in reflects their wealth and income. So a council tax freeze tends to benefit the better off more than the poor.

My contention is that both this and the increasing reliance of council funding on central government are unintended consequences of a council tax freeze. To keep the technical and more overtly political aspects of this separate I look at some of the wider implications in my The Nation says No Thanks! blog.


In my last brief post on the HelpGov blog nearly three months ago I forswore the mention here of Scotland’s independence referendum. Well, as will be obvious to all but the most news-averse reader ‘indyref’ as it became universally dubbed on Twitter has been and gone. I got the result I wanted (see the blog formerly known as No Thanks! but now renamed The Nation says No Thanks!) and my mind is relatively clear to return to the meat of public service issues.

Now there’s a slight cheat here because the subject of this first-post-for-three-months arises directly from said referendum I said I’d forswear.

Regardless of the result one of the features that everyone must have noticed was the high participation in the Yes and No campaigns and the high turnout: 85% of the electorate voted. There was also a burst of voter registration in the period running up to the deadline as these figures for Scotland show

  • Registered electorate 2012 – 4,060,000
  • Registered electorate 2014 – 4,280,000

Some of those on the new register were the 16 and 17 year olds who could vote for the first time. But many were older people who registered to vote for the first time, or at least the first time for many years.

And that’s the trigger for this post.

A number of councils have said they will use the new up to date and expanded registers to find residents who owe them money, in particular council tax and the long-gone poll tax. The charge seems to have been led by the last council I worked for, Aberdeenshire.

Instant outrage has followed.

A typical example was a local spokesperson for a group called Women for Independence, who is quoted in today’s Press and Journal as saying

The reason many people, particularly from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds, stayed off the register was because of a suspicion that they would be targeted by councils for debts arising from the now-scrapped poll tax. Not only is this targeting the poorest but smacks of retribution for those people daring to find a voice in our democratic process.

The outrage is of course complete tosh although less polite words are available.

The facts are

  • it is entirely legitimate for a council to seek to recover debts owed to it, whether for the poll tax, council tax or any other reasons
  • those other reasons for debt range from business owners who disappear leaving business rates unpaid to housing tenants who do a flit owing rent
  • debts owed to a council are in effect debts owed to all of us as citizens
  • councils have always used as many sources of information as they efficiently can to recover debts
  • people who decline to pay their debts to a council do so for many reasons. A past political act in relation to the poll tax may be one but a not insubstantial proportion are people who won’t pay rather than can’t
  • poor people don’t have to pay all their debts off in one go but can come to an arrangement to pay in manageable instalments
  • no evidence has been presented to say that new entrants on the electoral register in 2014 are either so poor they cannot pay their debts or are more likely to owe their council money than any other electors
  • old debt is not somehow forgivable because it is old. The only criterion that should be used to write it off is an excessive cost of collection.

I am pleased councils are using every feasible means to collect unpaid debts. More power to their elbow.


 

Not aff their heids after all. Common sense has prevailed. The flats will no longer be demolished as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, the reason cited to do with ‘safety and security.’ Er, yes. The decision still leaves the lingering question of why anyone thought it was a good idea in the first place but at least the outcome of  all the criticism is the right one.

I see Glasgow is going to blow up five high rise blocks of flats (apartments) as part of the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.explosion

Various worthies seem to think it’s a great idea. They’re quoted as saying things like

Glasgow is proving it is a city that is proud of its history but doesn’t stand still, a city that is constantly regenerating, renewing and re-inventing itself … [it’s] symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow … This spectacular start to the games within the opening ceremony will send a strong signal about the power of the Commonwealth Games … a bold and confident statement

There’ll be plenty of dust as the blocks come down and the plan is to show the spectacle on a 100 feet wide screen in the games stadium. The co-ordination sounds as challenging as parachuting HMQ into the London Olympic opening ceremony.

Personally, as a once-upon-a-time town/urban/city (take you pick) planner, I think they’re ‘aff their heids’ as a Glaswegian might say.

To me this gimmick sends the wrong messages, like

  • the renewal of our city has been a disaster for fifty years or more

and

  • we’ve got a lot of rubbish housing here.

Why focus on something that is generally regarded as having been a bad thing? Apart from anything else, it might prompt all those hundreds of journalists attending the games to spend their spare time having a look around some of the city’s housing triumphs that haven’t been demolished or noticing how well its motorways are integrated into the urban fabric.

No, it seems a funny way to start a celebration. About as meaningful as the Manchester games in 2002, when I seem to remember dozens of Morris Minors performing some sort of ‘dance’ in the pouring rain. A great reminder of everything that was wrong with British industry and the British climate.

I do hope Glasgow proves me wrong, but I’m not betting on it.

Footnote during the Games – I was pleased to see they never did blow them up for the opening ceremony. The Tunnocks tea cakes were by far better.


Elderly manMany years ago I got into a spat with a director of social work in Scotland about the cut-off age for a council’s older people’s strategy.

She was adamant that it had to be for everyone aged over 50. I demurred. ‘It’s too young,’ I piped up from the sidelines – but to no effect.

Today I saw an older people’s forum advertised in leafy Buckinghamshire, 500 miles and one Act of devolution away from where I live – again for anyone aged over 50.

It seems that the definition of older as 50-plus is near universal, at least in the UK and amongst those who purport to promote the interests of and support older people.

But most people are

  • living longer
  • staying healthier longer
  • retiring later, currently 65 (for men – women are ‘catching up’) and rising.

So how come this obsession with older = 50, fifteen years before most people retire? Can anyone enlighten me?

This is a serious question. Does the cut-off have any standing in law? Is there scientific or medical evidence that this is the age at which people really do become ‘older’? Or is the assumption just a lazy carry-over from the past that is never reviewed?

Answers on a (virtual) post card to the HelpGov blog please.


…who asked me to join their LinkedIn network

Dear X

Thank you for the e-mail asking me to connect with you on LinkedIn.

You didn’t include a personal message with your request so I’m not quite sure why you want to add me to your network.

I remember you left the council I worked for in, was it 2008? Crikey, that’s five years ago and I haven’t heard from you until now.

You’ve gone on to greater things since then, the parliamentary seat, party spokesperson on (let me be coy) Topic Y, probably much more I’ve not noticed. Good for you. All that stuff in the council must have been helpful – the single-minded pursuit of your own area of responsibility, the loyal support of officers who promoted your agenda and, let’s be frank, the war of attrition with your party colleagues.

As for me, I took a voluntary package to leave – no hard feelings, it was time for a change – and as my LinkedIn profile says I’ve morphed into a creative writing student. Well, between studies at the moment, but with one or two pieces published, like my story in the New Writing Scotland anthology, although I don’t expect that’s your sort of thing.

Truth is, apart from the creative writing, I’m sort of retired as far as paid work’s concerned.

So I’m not quite sure what sort of business it is we might do together through LinkedIn, unless you’re looking for some creative writing to support your political activities, heaven forfend.

I noticed, perhaps you did too, that I live in the area you represent in parliament, so the only other thing I have that might be of interest to you is … no, it couldn’t be, I was going to say an occasional vote.

Oh well, in the best traditions of the public service, this has been a rather more long-winded way of saying something quite simple, no thanks, or as LinkedIn rather unkindly puts it ‘Ignore request.’

All the best.

Yours sincerely

THE HELPGOV GUY


Phew! Talk about being caught out – see my post yesterday about the graffiti appearing on municipal buildings in Aberdeen overnight.

Caught out because I seem to have missed a whole political sub-text to these scribbles.

I taxed the mystery graffttist with lacking education because of their mis-spelling of ‘Wield’ as ‘Weild.’ A Facebook friend tells me:

methinks they have, in part, found education in the pages of graphic novels such as ‘V for Vendetta’…it’s also a film. Anarchists recently used main character ‘V’s mask. Lots of quotes in Olde English and refs to Guy Fawkes.

Ahh, now I get it, sort of.

The mystery was further alleviated by today’s local Press and Journal newspaper, which explains the Marischal College reference could be to a letter distributed anonymously to farmers during the Swing Riots in England in 1830 – they were mechanising their farms and making labourers redundant:

Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions. Ye have not done as ye ought.

This is either exciting or scary or pathetic stuff according to your point of view.

At the pathetic end of the scale I think our local protester has somewhat misunderstood the role of councillors as ‘weilders’ [sic] of power and blackguard enemies of the people.

Councillors did not send our armed forces to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Councillors did not manipulate financial markets on a massive scale to cause the current economic crisis. And they are scarcely responsible for climate change.

On the other hand, if the graffitist is concerned about the mechanisation of council work it’s a lost battle. Quill pens and ledgers were replaced by computers a long time ago.

The other tit-bit in today’s Press and Journal was that similar graffiti have appeared on the Aberdeen University campus.

So are you drawing the conclusion I am?

Yep, could be a student. Perhaps the combined resources of city-centre CCTV footage, Police Scotland and University security staff will deliver the answer soon. But they’d better get a move on because the young people will  all disappear on their summer hols soon.

To be continued (maybe) …

Footnote: never thought I’d add ‘anarchy’ to my list of tags but I have.

Update 14 November 2013 I was taken to task by someone commenting on this post for saying that the Marischal College graffitist ‘could be a student.’ The local media reported today that someone has pleaded guilty to vandalising the College and other buildings. He is … a student. The council says it cost them £10,000 to remove the offending words. Social reports are awaited before sentencing.

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