Stealth taxes turn ‘struggling families’ into ‘cash cows’

Debbie Henshall and family, Jack, six, and Keira, two, featured in ITV's Tonight programme last Thursday called 'How Much Is Your Council Charging You?'
Debbie Henshall and family, Jack, six, and Keira, two, featured in ITV's Tonight programme last Thursday called 'How Much Is Your Council Charging You?'

A ‘STRUGGLING family’ from Horsham appeared on national television last week in a documentary about local authorities raising ‘stealth taxes’ such as car parking charges, called “How Much Is Your Council Charging You?”

Horsham was used as a prominent example in ITV’s Tonight programme broadcast on the evening of Thursday March 22 at 7.30pm, in which the Government’s minister for housing and local government Grant Shapps accused district councils of using residents as ‘cash cows’.

National instances where councils have raised the cost of parking, burial plots, swimming, school meals and care were presented, as well as a couple of case studies looking at the impact on a particular family.

Horsham-based businesswoman Debbie Henshall of Wallis Way, who runs Musical Friends, welcomed an ITV film crew into her home three weeks ago, after the production company petitioned users of the Pavilions car park for comment on the recent rise in the cost of parking.

“It was a long day,” said Debbie. “They arrived at 7.15 in the morning and did not leave until 9.30 in the evening!”

The programme revealed that due to increased parking rates and an increase in the cost of swimming, her normal routine with her two children Jack, six, and Keira, two, will cost about £113 more this year.

This figure was compared with what would have been the increase if instead of freezing council tax it went up by the maximum 3.5 per cent permitted without referendum.

For Debbie’s family, this equated to approximately £50, or less than half what she will be paying due to rises in what the programme called ‘stealth taxes’.

Debbie said: “They have frozen the council tax but they seem to be taking it from somewhere else.”

She added it was never her intention to directly criticise Horsham District Council but that for ‘struggling families’ it all adds up.

“People were joking with me after the programme that £113 is only 28p per day, but for a struggling family it is an extra 28p, on top of paying more for food and petrol – all these pennies add up,” she said.

The ITV documentary widened the debate out though from the personal plight of families to a critique of local authorities electing to increase service charges for their residents.

Segued after the Horsham case study, the Government minister insisted increased charges are not justified, despite reducing local government grants.

He said: “We don’t think it is right for local councils to use their tenants and residents as cash cows.

“They need to realise that the way to come in on budget is to look at how you are doing things yourself, how you operating as a council.

“Not to say, oh we have less money from the Government so we’ll go and tax our residents more through parking or whatever other wheezes they come up with?”

This week Horsham district council has defended its record as an efficient council, and rejected the implied criticism aired in the programme that it is treating its residents as cash cows.

Roger Arthur (Con, Chanctonbury), HDC cabinet member for efficiency and resources, told the County Times that the council tax here ‘is one of the lowest in the UK, notwithstanding that its Government grant allocation per capita is one of the meanest’.

He said: “Horsham District Council’s net expenditure, per head of population, is the second lowest of the 201 district councils in the country.

“The Council seeks to maintain a balance between charging for services, which means users of the service pay, and charging costs to Council Tax payers, which means that all residents pay, irrespective of whether they use the services. “

Mr Arthur continued that HDC has reduced costs by £7 million over the past five years, despite reductions of around £1.5 million or 28 per cent per annum in the Government grant in the past two years alone.

Whilst recognising parking rates in the town remain ‘very competitive’ for the area, the cabinet member reasons that because most of the district’s households do not use Horsham’s 2000 car parking spaces, users rather than rate payers should subsidise their cost.

Back in the broadcast last week, Mr Shapps also asserted that councils must cut costs before hiking prices. He said he had little sympathy for any local authorities raising the cost of services unless they could answer in the affirmative to the following two questions.

“Have you shared your services with your neighbouring borough or district?

“Have you cut exorbitant pay awards?”

In light of HDC increasing the cost of a number of its services recently, the County Times put these questions to HDC, highlighting the fact Worthing and Adur Borough Councils merged services a number of years ago with the Conservative administration there boasting £10 million savings, with a further £2 million projected next year.

Speaking for HDC, Mr Arthur recognised ‘some councils have innovated faster than others’ but was proud to state though that ‘Horsham District Council is in the top echelon in many other respects’.

He said: “Horsham District Council has entered into partnerships with other local authorities, including the Census Partnership with Worthing & Adur and Mid Sussex, plus Sussex Building Control in association with Crawley.

“Those partnership arrangements have already delivered year on year savings of around £500,000 and we expect them to deliver even more.

In respect of the minister’s assertion that exorbitant pay offers should be cut, the local cabinet member said: “Staff numbers at Horsham District Council have been reduced by over 100 in the past five years, whilst the number of senior directors has just been reduced from three to two.

“Whilst their pay has been frozen for over three years and pension benefits have been reduced, our staff continue to improve productivity. If Horsham District Council is to deliver even further successes, then we need to take our staff with us and their hard work should be recognised and supported by the local media.”

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