Council tax - where the money goes
The council tax for 2016 / 2017 for residents of Lydford has increased about 3.37 percent over last year. For a band D property the total is £1,707.35 which is a considerable sum for those on low incomes. Can we be sure our money is always wisely spent?
Information from West Devon Borough Council was used to produce the following breakdown by spending authority:-
Table 1: Council Tax for Band D household in Lydford
|Authority||16 - 17 £||15 - 16 £||Increase £||Increase %|
*Devon County figure for 16-17 includes £23.23 for adult social care
The bulk of the money goes to Devon County Council who fund schools, highways and social services. West Devon Borough Council only take 12.5% of the total a band D household will pay in council tax for 2016 / 2017 despite providing essential services such as refuse collection, planning and Environmental Health.
The amount each Lydford household has to pay towards the parish council precept has fallen for 2016 / 2017 as it did in 2015 / 2016 but only by £0.56. The key point about the LPC precept this year is not that it has risen or fallen but that at £33.52 per band D household it continues to be poor value.
Lydford Parish Council no longer contribute to the cost of the public conveniences. Grass cutting is one tangible service provided and this year they will contribute towards the playground as well. In a typical year almost all of the money goes on administration and running costs.
Some of the precept goes in grants to other organisations including charities. Even here there are questions over the need for some of these grants. Over the past few years 'grants' has been the second largest category of expenditure. The Clerk's salary is the largest category.
Should so much go to charity? This goes to the heart of what a council is for. One view is that councils (parish, borough or county) are there to provide essential services that cannot or would not be provided by the private sector, although not everyone will agree with that.
Some charities undoubtedly do excellent work that benefits the whole community. Others provide services for vulnerable sectors of the community. The distinction between what is essential and should be provided by councils and what is non-essential and may be provided by charities is probably not a clear one. Where a charity provides for a small section of the community, and not a vulnerable or needy section, then the justification for giving public money is questionable.
Many people like to support charities, either on a regular basis or in response to a sudden emergency. This is voluntary giving. The problem with Council Tax is that it is not voluntary. One pays or risks going to prison. If a local charity is worthy of support there should be no need for the Parish Council to use Council Tax to provide generous grants particularly where these are repeated year after year. Are people not to be trusted to donate to the local charities?
The figures given below are based on information supplied by Lydford Parish Council. For some reason they seem reluctant to put this on their website.
Table 2: Lydford Parish Council budget (not actual)
|12 - 13 £||13 - 14 £||14 - 15 £||15 - 16 £||16 - 17 £|
|Clerk fixed exps||300||300||300||300||100|
The above figures are for the budget not actual expenditure.
Once again we see the bulk of the money going on admin and running costs. This year the total budgeted for charitable donations is set at £1000 but as we know from previous years the budgeted figure can be exceeded. For 2014 - 2015 the budgeted amount for grants was £750 but the actual was £1832. Very generous but then it is only public money.
The minutes of the April 2016 meeting of LPC record payment of £300 for "Beating the Bounds". One wonders if this activity should have been carried out at public expense or if it would have been better orgainised as a fund raising exercise for one of the local charities, perhaps through sponsorship of the walkers. This request for money was raised by a member of the public at the March 2016 meeting of LPC. It was not on the agenda but was discussed and approved anyway.
"Contingency" seems to have featured prominently in recent years but has been absent for the last three years. It has always been a bit of a mystery why they needed a contingency when they have reserves. In fact the reserves are so significant that one wonders why there is no income from interest. We know rates are low but it should be possible to get some interest from reserves.
We are beginning to see the effect of of the playground. Inspection cost is listed separately in the budget but it is not clear how much of the insurance is taken by the playground.
Whether LPC spend council tax money (the precept) wisely or not depends on your point of view. Generous grants attract thanks for the councillors which doubtless gives them a good feeling. Of course in making these grants it is not the councillors' own money that they are giving away (well only a tiny part is). Perhaps thanks should go to the ordinary parishioners, particularly those who struggle to find the money to pay Council Tax.
Perhaps this section should be called the magically appearing parish council assets. In December 2008, when questions were being asked about just why LPC were so keen to support the replacement of the existing sewage works by a new one in a different location, the parish council minutes contained a statement:-
"Lydford Parish Council currently owns no property at all, and its assets are limited to a single filing cabinet."
The LPC Annual Return, a document sent to the Audit Commission, records fixed assets on 31st March 2009 of some £9124. Oddly these assets don't seem to include the filing cabinet mentioned in LPC's statement. It seems more likely that the document sent to the Audit Commission contains the correct information which leaves the question why was the incorrect information put in the statement attached to the minutes (assuming the assets were not all acquired in a three month period)?