Stop Whitehall’s daylight robbery

A letter to the Swindon Advertiser

In response to Charles Linfield (“shoring up support”, October 8th) my letter did address the question of ‘devolved’ powers to England, but was cut, presumably for reasons of space. The simplest way to devolve power from Whitehall would be to give Councils the right to keep all their income from Business Rates. Before Thatcher’s assault on local democracy Councils had more control over their income. They kept all the domestic and commercial rates they collected, and then received additional money through the Rate Support Grant. However, Whitehall has progressively taken more control over local authorities.

The impact is reflected in what central government deigns to give us from the money raised from Business Rates. David Renard has informed me that the town takes in £107 million and the government funding assessment is £65 million. In other words they fleeced us of £42 million in one year. If we were able to keep all we take in there would be no financial crisis.

Writing in a recent column David referred to the debate which is opening up following the Scottish referendum. He said it gave “a unique opportunity to investigate what Councils should do and how much we can prise from the distant hand of Whitehall”. Surely the right of Councils to keep all the income they raise locally would be an obvious means of decentralising power.

There has already been a precedent in relation to income from Council housing rents. Under the new Housing Revenue System, the ‘negative subsidy’ was ended and each local authority is able to keep all the income it raises from rent.

Of course, allowing local authorities to keep all they take in, would not be sufficient if it was just left at that. The UK suffers from a huge imbalance of wealth across the regions. Those towns and cities which are richer obviously take in more Council Tax and Business Rates than poorer areas. In order to try to equalise conditions and service provision over the country it would be necessary for a central government ‘top-up’ which would be set according to an estimation of the demographics, levels of wealth and poverty, of each local authority area. Richer areas probably wouldn’t need a ‘top-up’.

Just as Westminster was fleecing Councils by using tenants’ rent to subsidise central government, so it is fleecing us by its ‘re-distribution’ of Business Rates. If anything is to be prised ‘from the distant hand of Whitehall’ then Councils like Swindon should stop meekly accepting the status quo and demand that they have power over the resources they raise locally. It’s time to stop Whitehall’s daylight robbery.

Martin Wicks

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