We’re not really the sort of people who have New Year’s resolutions but when the excellent Guardian Local Government Network asked us to name one we said that we were going to be nicer to Eric Pickles in 2012. And you know what; we meant it.
Unfortunately, much like the diet, alcohol ban, gym attendance and intention to spend less money on cheesy Wotsits this New Year’s resolution has not made it to February.
So what caused our feelings towards Mr Pickles to turn so rapidly? Before showing the headline it is probably worth reminding people that Mr Pickles has offered every council money equivalent to a 2.5% increase in council tax and in return the council has to commit not to increase their tax this year. So back to our outrage…
One headline can sum it up:
A moral duty?!? As in this is an absolute? As in this is correct and any other interpretation is thus immoral?
Are you kidding me?
I can understand that there are things in the act of Government that can be described as moral; the starting of wars, protection of the poor, a commitment to the environment maybe but how on earth does the decision to raise council tax EVER classify as a moral decision?
Ok, so let’s withhold judgement for a moment. What could Mr Pickles have been referring to that makes this a ‘moral’ issue? I assume that Mr Pickles argument is that it is immoral to ask for money from the public (more tax) when the Government are offering them the money without recourse to the public.
A fair point as far as it goes. The flip side is that this money will be coming from the public coffers in one way or another so is it worse to take it in council tax or worse to take it from the Government tax pot, or indeed just from the public debt? Indeed, one might argue that the councils refusing this handout from the Government are actually being responsible and helping the Government not get further into debt?!?
If Eric Pickles is arguing that any decision not to accept the Government’s money is immoral then there surely there are no good reasons for a council to turn down this money.
But there are really good reasons not to take the money and following a sort of moral form I’ve put them as follows:
1) The good (this is a summary of the more substantial piece written here): As the money being offered will only last for one year it will leave council’s in a really deep hole next year. In effect, instead of needing a 7-8% cut in services they will instead need to make 9.5%-10.5% to make up for the extra 2.5% of money they will no longer have. In contrast, if you put up council tax then the money is available next year again. In effect, Eric Pickles is asking councils to take money this year and pay the consequences next year. It’s not unreasonable for council’s not to agree to that sort of trade off. Indeed, one could argue it’s the most rational option.
2) The bad: Some councils are turning down the 2.5% because they want to increase their tax by 3.5% and thus bring more money in. On its own this is not really a good reason but taken with the good reason above is not unreasonable.
3) The ugly: A few councils simply don’t like being told what to do by central government and are raising council tax simply to put two fingers up to Eric Pickles. Not exactly immoral (indeed, one could argue they are the true localists, something which has almost been a moral crusade for the coalition) but certainly not a good reason to do something.
Local councils might not be acting in a way that meets with Mr Pickles approval but there are plenty of good, and not so good, reasons why they are acting this way. To describe them as immoral is just another example of Mr Pickles using rhetoric and bombast against local government when a bit of understanding would have been appreciated.
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