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.

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For anyone who hasn’t seen it Bella Caledonia is a web site that says it’s ‘an online magazine (launched in 2007) exploring ideas of independence, self-determination and autonomy.’ Whatever it was in 2007 it’s gone beyond exploration to being a sort of up-market intellectual cheer leader for the Scottish independence ‘Yes’ campaign.

They make great play of the high quality of debate about Independence, although they claim in a recent article (Doubt? by their editor Mike Small) that ‘the No campaign has a track record of constant disengagement.’ So, the high quality of debate is on their side only. Still, as they say,

just about everywhere you go, everyone’s talking about the same thing: the referendum, our collective future.

Or trying to. I tried to comment on this article when it appeared. My comment was held ‘awaiting moderation’ for a few hours while other, later comments were published. When I checked about ten hours after submitting it, my comment had disappeared. It has to be said that ALL the comments they published supported their point of view. But if one attempt to comment that didn’t fit their world view has disappeared, perhaps others have too.

Here is my unpublished comment in full:

Bella Caledonia consistently praises the quality of the independence debate from the ‘Yes’ side and consistently denigrates the quality from the ‘No’ side. The one thing I’d agree with about this post is the challenge of conducting a ‘nuanced complex argument’ on Twitter. So perhaps in this less-constrained space Bella could hitch her skirts up and answer a question I asked a couple of weeks ago on Twitter.

In a response to someone else on or before 23 April (I don’t have access to that discussion now) @bellacaledonia used the phrase ‘hate apologist.’ I asked:

‘Perhaps you could clarify what a “Hate Apologist” is? Or is it just a new term of abuse?’

You did not answer and when you posted a flattering reference the next day to an article in The Scotsman about Noam Chomsky’s view on Scottish independence as an example of the quality of debate I asked:

Hello, is that the @bellacaledonia who didn’t answer my query the other day about what they meant by “Hate apologist”? #qualityofdebate’.

The Twitter incarnation of the lovely Bella then replied:

@rogerlwhite zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’

And I couldn’t resist commenting:

@bellacaledonia Exactly my point #qualityofdebate So what *is* a hate apologist? If you use unexplained terms you really should explain them’ [perhaps not the most elegant way to express my point but I’m sure you see what I mean].

So, third time lucky from me to Bella – what is a ‘hate apologist’? I genuinely don’t know and would love it if you could maintain what you perceive to be the high quality of debate by telling me. Otherwise I’m afraid it will be zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz from me.

Is that negative or, heaven forefend, abusive? I was merely trying to get Bella Caledonia to say what they meant by ‘Hate apologist,’ because I didn’t have a clue, and still don’t.

You see, it’s not good enough to say how high the quality of debate on a subject is then go around calling people ‘hate apologists’ and not explain what you mean.

Meantime, here is the language used in some of the comments they have published on their ‘Doubt?’ article

  • the tame jock journalists and the lamentable bbc…
  • the amoral, policy free, running on empty machine, that is Scottish Labour
  • the feartie mongers of Better Together
  • pure mischief making [an article by composer James MacMillan referred to in discussion]
  • [David] Torrance [a ‘No’ supporter] is an agitator … a devious manipulating bar steward.

High quality debate? You decide.


Anyone reading this blog over the last few months will detect a trend – I’ve been writing more and more about this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

I swithered before I started doing this in a blog I describe as ‘…trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff.’ My personal views on the subject are a tad removed from many of the subjects I’ve posted over the last few years about improving public services.

Maybe I could justify my ‘#indyref’ posts as ‘other stuff.’ But what could be more closely related to the subject of ‘government’ than how a people chooses to govern itself?

It won’t take anyone long to realise that I’m a ‘No,’ or perhaps a ‘Better Together’, person and I’ve tried on a number of occasions to write coherently on where I stand about Scottish independence. My reasons for being against independence are, I believe, positive but I’ve struggled to articulate them without getting bogged down in detail.

Tom Morton

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Shetland Library

So I was grateful to Tom Morton for writing Nationalism: a dangerous delusion on his ‘Tom Morton’s beatcroft’ blog. For anyone furth of Scotland, Tom is a journalist and broadcasts on BBC Radio Scotland, currently on Morton through Midnight. You can catch him, of course, on i-Player. I don’t always agree with his choice of music and I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of what he says about the Labour party. But I do like the main thrust of what he says about independence and how he says it. And I do agree with his final conclusion

it’s a thoroughly Scottish ‘no’ from me. No to separatism. No to division. And an end to this monumental and corrupting distraction from the central moral and political issues we face.

I thank him for putting into words what I haven’t been able to and urge you to look at what else he says.


Bad language warning

What standards should we expect in public debate about an important issue, and what constitutes public debate?

The questions have been prompted in my mind by online discussion of the Scottish independence referendum and the Collaborative Scotland web site. They urge ‘respectful dialogue’ and this seems to me a pretty good principle for discussion of such an important issue. These are their guidelines:

  • Show respect and courtesy towards all those who are engaged in these discussions, whatever views they hold
  • Acknowledge that there are many differing, deeply held and valid points of view
  • Use language carefully and avoid personal or other remarks which might cause unnecessary offence
  • Listen carefully to all points of view and seek fully to understand what concerns and motivates those with differing views from our own
  • Ask questions for clarification and when we may not understand what others are saying or proposing
  • Express our own views clearly and honestly with transparency about our motives and our interests
  • Respond to questions asked of us with clarity and openness and, whenever we can, with credible information.

They strike me as sensible and when I across public comments that I think are abusive I try to gently let the person concerned know about these guidelines and leave them to draw their own conclusions. Most of the material of this sort I come across is on Twitter, but I see a fair scattering of it on Facebook and individual web sites. Some of my exchanges end in what I regard as a redirection of abuse (and, occasionally, implied threats) from the original target to me. At this stage I just stop. Some people are so unbalanced and blinkered that no comment they disagree with will do anything other than convince them of the rectitude of their own point of view.

Some however are different and should, in my view, know better.

Yesterday I saw a tweet that read

“@[name] Aw, sad for poor Jose-Manuel Barroso tonight.” Maybe he’ll turn on Cameron and say In ye come Scotland fuck the Tory bastard

I don’t know what action or remark by Barroso prompted this comment but I know what the words (excuse me) ‘fuck the Tory bastard’ mean.

I remonstrated – gently I’d say – with

Not sure ‘F the Tory B’ helps #indyref debate – a suggestion: [link to Collaborative Scotland web site as above]

Our exchange then went:

Him – no but it’s on Twitter, it’s heavy with irony and guess what? People laugh. That’s because it touches how they feel. New media

Me – Still, I find it sad you reduce the high aspiration of national self-determination to ‘Fuck the Tory bastard’, ironic or not

Him – sorry roger. That sounds like sanctimony. This is Twitter not Thought for the Day.

At which point I gave up.

Funny my correspondent should mention Thought for the Day because ‘he’ is not some anonymous internet troll. He’s an ex-BBC journalist who presented a BBC Radio Scotland current affairs programme, amongst other things, for a number of years.

Is it unreasonable of me to expect ‘respectful dialogue’ on Twitter about the independence referendum, especially from public figures? Am I sanctimonious or just a wimp who needs to man up? Should we accept standards on some media we wouldn’t on others? What do you think?


Carney speechThe Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, met First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday and spoke at a Scottish Council Development and Industry meeting about the economics of currency unions. He stressed he was talking ‘technically’ but what he said has led to much discussion in the media. The risks and challenges of a shared currency if Scotland votes for independence have been at the forefront of comment.

One conclusion widely drawn is that the Yes campaign and/or the Scottish National Party need a ‘Plan B’ if a currency union with the rest of the UK proves impossible to negotiate. Politicians are naturally reluctant to consider Plan Bs as it casts doubt on their Plan As. There was a good example on a recent BBC Question Time programme when John Swinney refused to answer a ‘what if’ question – ‘What if you don’t win the referendum?’

Those wanting to retain the Union in one form or another should also be thinking about some Plan Bs. In their case it’s the answer to the question ‘What further devolution would you propose if you win the referendum?’ It seems clear that many people in Scotland want more powers for the Scottish Parliament if there’s a ‘No’ vote – see for example the analysis by What Scotland Thinks.

Who should be doing this thinking and setting out their Plan Bs? I think not the Yes and Better Together (No) campaigns. They are both alliances of political and other groups who have different views on many subjects. The SNP and Scottish Greens for, example, don’t agree on the currency question. It’s the main political parties – the SNP on the one side, the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems on the other, in some combination – who should be developing some options.

And if I were to add a special plea for those who want to keep the Union it would be not to make your response a pragmatic one just to satisfy the Scots. Go back to some first principles about what sort of United Kingdom you want, and apply your prescription to all four countries. That sort of reform is much needed … assuming the UK stays as one.


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