Robert Aldridge: Council stealth taxes are like Ryanair's add-ons

Garden tax could be the first of many top-up charges, warns Lib Dem group leader Robert Aldridge.

Monday, 9th July 2018, 10:28 am
Updated Monday, 9th July 2018, 2:50 pm
Will gardeners down tools or bag their waste and put it in the landfill bill when the garden tax comes in?
Will gardeners down tools or bag their waste and put it in the landfill bill when the garden tax comes in?

As the farce of the garden waste tax begins to unravel, there are fears that it could be the start of many individual extra charges imposed by the council.

Lib Dem councillors repeatedly asked council leaders to rule out any new charges and they steadfastly refused to do so. So we could be faced with a Ryanair-type approach to council services (other budget airlines are available), where you pay for your basic service and then have to pay for any service on top of the basic. The only difference being that the basic council tax is not cheap!

The council gave away their plans for more stealth taxes in a line in the garden tax letter which said: “The collection of garden waste is not paid for by council tax as it’s not a statutory service.” Not many council services are statutory, which opens the door to a range of new charges being brought in.

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But there is a fundamental point of principle in this. We pay council tax for universal services. This means that those who are less well off get the same service as those who are wealthy. Indeed the SNP at Holyrood keeps going on about how important universal benefits are (like the baby boxes).

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Strange then that they are so keen to discriminate against poor people at local level. Of course, for now, there are people on benefits who will continue to get their garden waste collected with no extra charge. But how long will that last?

And if the charging culture extends to other non-statutory services (filling grit bins, pavement repairs on non-priority routes etc), we rapidly head towards a more divided city where the ‘haves’ afford the services and the ‘have nots’ live in ever shabbier communities with poorer services.

It is ironic that the council has trumpeted setting up a poverty commission at the same time as opening the door to a two-tier council where poor people get substantially worse services than their wealthy counterparts. Lib Dems don’t believe in a system where wealth buys you better services in local government. It is strange that SNP and Labour are supporting that.

Of course, separating out services for individual charges also makes it far easier for each individual service to be put out to tender – and, potentially, privatisation by the back door.

Lib Dems have been arguing for some time that we need an adult debate about the future of council services. We can’t go on pretending the council can keep doing everything with ever decreasing resources. We need to shift from dealing with things after they have happened to preventing problems arising in the first place. But sneaking in extra charges with no clear plan to change services will simply leave everyone disgruntled and services in disarray.

It is quite clear that the garden tax has not been properly thought through. It is taking longer to bring in than expected. The system for registration is ridiculously cumbersome and it is likely to lead to increased fly tipping or people simply bagging garden waste and putting it in their grey bins. The council consulted on the proposal and got a resounding “don’t do it”. But they pressed ahead regardless. Little wonder that people don’t trust consultations and believe politicians don’t listen. Let’s start the adult debate, but let’s make it about equitable services for all – not just services for those that can afford them.