They're bleeding us dry to buy mountains of red tape
By Boris Johnson
(Filed: 27/02/2003)

Come on now, ladies and gentlemen, who will start the bidding? I hear 12.4 per cent over there in Kent. Any advance on 12.4? Who will give me 15 per cent? Yes, you, sir, well done, 16 per cent. And do I hear 20 per cent? My goodness, a forest of hands for 20 per cent. Can anybody do better than a 20 per cent increase in their council tax this year?

Going, going - what was that? Say that again. You cannot be serious. I have here a gentleman who has been asked to find 27 per cent more in council tax this year! He is my friend, the guard at the Palace of Westminster, who watches the members' entrance for forthcoming retaliation by the agents of Saddam Hussein, and I have no reason to doubt him.

His house has not grown in size; his output of rubbish has not increased; nor is his car doing appreciably more damage to the roads this year than last. And yet he has no choice but to cough up a further #400 per year out of taxed income. Add that to his dues under the congestion charge (more than a grand), and the rise in his National Insurance contributions and you are looking at a tax squeeze of Healeyesque viciousness.

The pips are squeaking across the country this April; and this time it is not the rich who are feeling the wrath of the People's Party. It is all of us. Every householder in the land - and particularly the southern parts of the land - is about to pay wildly over the odds to a Blair government which promised not to raise taxes.

It is diabolical, and yet to listen to Blair yesterday you'd think it was nothing to do with him. The rises in council tax are in fact a cynical dodge, and Blair's central government is almost entirely to blame.

Many of us will by now be familiar with Labour's ruthless plan to skew money away from the South to the North. It is a flagrant act of pork-barrel politics by Labour, and it is well documented in a masterly piece in this week's Spectator by Ross Clark. What is often not so well understood is that central government diktat of one kind or another is also directly responsible for expanding your local government bill.

Let us take an area at random: oh, I don't know, what about Oxfordshire, where the council tax is rising by 13.4 per cent - not as bad as it might be, thanks to the hard work of Keith Mitchell, the council leader, and others. In cash terms, that increase amounts to #42.3 million. But only #14 million of the increment can be attributed to the effects of inflation.

Wherever you look, there are vexatious pieces of central government legislation, which cost the council money, and which end up costing you money. Over the past two years, Oxfordshire has been forced to conduct a massive "job evaluation" of every council worker, in order to avoid being taken to industrial tribunals. The cost this year? A cool #1.9 million. Then there is the inflation-busting pay settlement of #1.7 million. The cost of the landfill tax is #300,000 and the cost of disposing of the fridge mountain is #600,000.

Then there is the #500,000 fine the council has been ordered to pay to the NHS, for "blocking beds" in the sense that the council has failed to find enough care-home places for elderly people. This fine is doubly absurd. The shortage of care-home places is caused entirely by the Government's demented Care Standards Act; and, in any case, the council was given a large sum by the Government to buy care-home beds; which it is now returning in the form of fines.

And then there is Gordon's big April fool, the #2.5 million the council will have to pay for the extra cost of NI contributions for its staff. That's right, folks: you are not only going to be stung for your own NI; you will also pay, via your council tax bill, for the NI contributions of the growing army of public sector workers.

What people don't sufficiently understand, and what I never tire of pointing out, is that regulation has a fiscal impact on everyone, as well as being a bother for those who have to comply. If you have a regulation about sheep carcasses, you need a dead sheep collector. If you have a regulation about windows, you need a window inspector; and these characters will all have their salaries and pensions and NI contributions funded out of council tax.

At this very moment, councils are taking on an "equality officer", to ensure that everything the council does is in compliance with race relations legislation. Almost every council has a recycling officer, whose job it is to encourage recycling. It doesn't matter that recycling is so expensive that councils furtively bury the stuff. A council is still required to possess a recycling officer, and the poor fellow cannot be expected to go without his NI contributions, paternity leave and all the rest of it.

If I were in power, I would stop fettering the hands of councils by passing so much pointless regulation, most of which is designed to expand the great Labour vote-bank of public sector workers. Above all, I would start immediately to release local government from central government control by giving councils back the authority to collect and spend the business rates, rather than sending it all to the Treasury.

Over time, we should restore the system by which 100 per cent of the money that is spent locally is also raised locally. You would, of course, need a redistributory mechanism to help areas where the tax base is low, but it could be done. We have all had enough of these tax rises, with local and central government each blaming the other for the increases. The voter has a right to know who is responsible for the increases, and whom to punish.