CHRIS PHILP: Does Camden Council know it's Christmas time?
Calvin Coolidge, US president in the 1920s, was famous for saying very little. However, he did leave one memorable nugget of wisdom to posterity: Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalised robbery. It s now coming to the time when c
Calvin Coolidge, US president in the 1920s, was famous for saying very little. However, he did leave one memorable nugget of wisdom to posterity: "Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalised robbery."
It's now coming to the time when councils around the country set their council tax for the next financial year, which starts in April. They would do well to remember Coolidge's words as they do so.
Since 1997, the average annual council tax bill has almost doubled. The story is the same here in Camden - Band D council tax is already over £1,000 with another £300 for the Mayor's precept.
This may not sound like very much to some people. But to pensioners with limited savings or families struggling to make ends meet, it is often an expense they can't afford.
Because council tax takes no real account of ability to pay, it bears down most heavily on those least able to afford it.
For people struggling on lower incomes, council tax eats into scarce resources that would otherwise be used to heat the home or buy new shoes. Given the current economic situation, it is more important than ever to put money back in people's pockets. Those in public office have a more pressing duty than ever to make sure that not a penny of the public's money is wasted.
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Camden Council, like any arm of government, therefore has a special responsibility to make sure that it taxes as lightly as possible. Does it do so? Efficiency savings have been made in recent years, enabling the council tax to be frozen in 2007-08 and increased by only 2.5 per cent in 2008-09. But I'm not sure this is good enough.
Camden still sets the highest council tax in inner London. Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Lambeth and Westminster are all able to set lower council tax than Camden - and some of these boroughs have higher social deprivation than we do.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has already led the way this year with a freeze in the Mayor's precept, after large increases under the previous Mayor.
Conservative-controlled Hammersmith will cut council tax by 3 per cent for the third year in succession, and at the same time it has actually increased resident satisfaction with services. This shows it can be done!
So is there scope for savings in Camden, which can then be passed on to residents struggling in this economic climate? I believe there is.
Here is a simple example. Camden spends nearly twice the London average on "publicity" and "marketing." Cutting back to the average would help fund a council tax freeze, handing back almost £2.0million to local taxpayers. Would you rather see this money spent on advertising and PR, or given back to some of the poorest people in Camden?
Here's another example. Camden Council recently had an unexpected £15million income windfall. Instead of handing some of this back to the public, they decided to spend it all.
The full council was not given the chance to vote on this, but if it did, I would have voted against spending all the money. Many of the projects receiving money are worthy, but some of this cash should have been given back to our hard-pressed residents.
Another madcap scheme recently proposed was to spend half a million pounds on a re-vamp for the council chamber. I'm glad that we seem to have been able to scupper this idea already.
Of course, taxes are needed for vital services and to protect the vulnerable. But as councils and governments come to consider the level of taxation, there is a fundamental question they must answer: where there is a choice, who would they rather spend our money - the government, or individual members of society who have worked hard to earn it? Myself, I trust people to spend their money better than governments and councils.
I am therefore lobbying hard to freeze Camden's council tax next year to help some of our hardest-pressed fellow-citizens.
At this difficult time, they need this help more than ever. I rather suspect President Coolidge would agree.
Chris Philp is a local councillor and campaigner,
and the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Hampstead & Kilburn