Comment & Opinion
by Dave Wilson Dave Wilson

A man in a van! Clearing the rubbish on the A2! Dealing with graffiti! Bringing forward rubbish collection by an hour! A new eastern bypass!

All these things and more are bring trumpeted as great achievements by our beloved local council. But you might think that these are just things they ought to be doing anyway. So why the ballyhoo?

Obvious answer number 1: there’s an election for council coming up next year, so the Conservatives want to be seen to be doing something.

Obvious answer number 2: the services the council provides have been cut to rock bottom for so long that anything, no matter how small, is something worth celebrating.

Non-obvious answer number 3: things are getting worse somewhere else, and the Conservatives would like you not to notice.

All very cynical. But all very true. Because if you look at what has happened to council spending over the last few years, there have been big cuts in what they spend on some things as they grapple with real-terms cuts in their budget.

As we all know from experience, spending on much of the non-essential services has been cut (the parks, for example), or charges have been introduced or raised (sports), or the services are being paid for by someone else (the Business Improvement District (BID)).

It’s worth looking at that last example a bit more. What the BID delivers is what they call “additionality” – in English, doing things the council doesn’t do.

Many of those things the council used to do, though: providing Christmas lights in the High Street being an obvious example.

But those activities also include cleaning graffiti faster, picking up litter, dealing with tourist enquiries through the ambassadors and a host of other things, most of which used to be done by the council.

Does that matter? Well, yes it does. Because it shows that many of those activities are desirable in our communities.

They are denied to most of the areas of the district, though, because the BID is confined to a small area of the city and raises extra money from the businesses in that patch.

But if those services are desirable to create an attractive, well kept, safe and clean community, why aren’t we all getting them?

Because, among other things, for two successive years (2013 and 2014) our councillors voted to freeze council tax rather than raise it.

That had the effect of removing just over 4% from the current council’s budget. Lucky for me, the council raised just over £10 million pounds from Council Tax, so the value of that missing 4% is easy to work out: £400,000.

I reckon you could get quite a lot of things done for £400,000. Things that people actually want.

The trouble is, under the current system imposed by the government we can’t go back in time and add that 4% back into the budget.

It’s gone, forever. Like some, but not all of the councillors who unforgivably voted for that freeze.

Hence the shouting from the rooftops about a few superficial, small-scale short term initiatives to deal with highly visible problems – which the council has a legal responsibility for anyway.

Our museums are still being closed, we’re still being asked to pay more to play tennis and football, car park charges are going up all the time, and so on and so on.

So next time someone offers you something that looks nice – perhaps a new eastern bypass for which they don’t have the money, design or timescale – don’t be fooled.

There are fundamental problems with the quality and quantity of much of what our council does deliver, and many areas where it chooses not to provide for us.

Pushing responsibility on to others, whether that’s the BID or volunteer groups, does not excuse the Conservatives from responsibility for the poor state of much our community fabric. And window dressing, however nice it is, can’t mask the chronic failure of this council to deliver the services which we so clearly need.

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