Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Medway Parish Precept


At this moment bean counters in Medway will be going over the Quarterly figures and will be preparing for the next full budget to be presented in March.

Today's cabinet meeting will discuss the direct cut to government grant by the Conservative Government which, when you cut through the smoke, mirrors and deliberate Tory obfuscation stands at a budget cut of 3.65%. Taking into account inflation and most residents can read the runes; our services, already stretched by increasing costs to Adult and Children's care are going to be stretched to breaking point.

The direct government grant however is of course the larger; but not the only, part of the equation.

Medway Council is likely (though not confirmed yet) to be rising Council Tax on all residents by approximately 2% this year. This on the face of it would lead to some objection, given this tax rise will come in addition to the Pickles Poll Tax of on average £233 for 14,000 or so people currently receiving a Council Tax Benefit; and the changes to Universal benefits happening on the same day. This is going to be a tough year for our poorest residents.

The interesting point that has, and is rarely looked at, is not just the amount the Council is cutting from the most vulnerable; and raising via direct revenue on Council Tax; but also on the threshold to precepts or levies which the council does not directly control.

Our Tory MPs are always happy to challenge the Police and Fire precept but are always very silent when it comes to Parishes.

In Medway 25,000 residents or so live in areas with Parish Council's; many with inconsistent transparency, rather poor and inaccessible websites, and press commentary in recent years of ruling cliques. Many are subject to democracy in all but name with uncontested elections and co-opting of Councillor’s widespread. I know however that some have strong and committed representatives who are genuine community champions, whilst others are used as a staging post for greater office. There are some great examples and there are - to be fair - some very poor examples; and the inconsistency is stark because of a lack of direct oversight.

Many of these Councils charge not just a small amount, but sometimes up to 10-20% more on the average Council Tax bill with those in bigger properties paying a larger amount. 

An example Medway Parish precept is below currently represented by 3 Conservative UA Councillor’s and is in addition to the Medway Council tax.

A   -   £190 extra
B  -   £223 extra
C  -  £255 extra
D   -  £286 extra
E  -   £350 extra
F  -   £413 extra
G  -  £477 extra
H  -  £572 extra

Many Medway Councillor’s are rightly concerned about the level of Council Tax and we will be debating the rise in the coming weeks no doubt. The elephant in the room though is that of the precept which will see some of Medway’s poor and middle-income residents paying more depending on whether they live in Rochester or Hoo.

The precept is not capped which means we could see big increases in light of inflationary pressures and cuts. In addition; the totally opaque nature of our current settlement means Parishes will probably be struggling to understand their total tax base. This makes setting of precepts very tricky.

As a social democrat you will be unsurprised to note that I in favour of better services and in many areas a level of tax which support these services well. I am in favour of Councillor’s supporting their communities and justifying higher tax levels. I do consider it mildly hubristic for those same Councillor’s to be decrying Labour for high tax levels when many themselves benefit from the same argument in terms of services rendered. The fact Parishes get away with the precept is because they top-up and offer additional services.

There is a wider political point here; in that some of the biggest advocates for small government and low tax rates are ironically representatives of areas with bigger government in terms of support for services; and they celebrate it. Food for thought.

The message for Parishes in Medway though is stark; with costs of living going up parishes need to be aware that increasing precepts will be scrutinised by your electorates, who like me, share a concern around the level of transparency and democracy on display in parish structures.

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