Tag Archives: blogging

One good turn…

I recently got a shout out from the nice people at We Love Local Government – a blogging collective which therefore contains a broader range of insights, and delivers them on a more regular basis, than you’re likely to get in these parts.

They also post Dilbert cartoons when they have nothing else to say, which strikes me as a sound thing to do. It would seem rude not to reciprocate (the link, not the Dilbert), and I can’t imagine anyone reading here without being interested in what’s written over there, so – off you go!

Arguably funnier than Dilbert. Hard to believe that's possible, I know

Nice place you’ve got here

The more a debate concerns Local Government, the further logic flies out of the window. Or at least so it seems this week. It’s a shame, because often there are some important conversations to be had, and the amount of heat generated obscured the possibility of getting some light into the bargain. I thought last week’s conversation about fairness and unfairness in a geographically-based electoral system was interesting, important, and involved useful contributions on all sides. This week, however, we have a “Council Tax bombshell” in the Sunday Express. This is a retread of classic old “revaluation” scare.

I will largely gloss over the question of whether we should revalue at all, and whether we should have property taxes in the first place (my personal view, by the way, is yes and yes, which is not to say that council tax is flawless). It would in theory be possible to assume property prices remain constant forever and slot in a notional historic price to any new property. This is what we have been doing since 1993, indeed it’s the situation in my current property, and we just about get away with it. It obviously isn’t sustainable forever – consider the relative value change of two houses in the last century, one in the Canary Wharf area and one in thriving industrial Newcastle. If you think that’s balanced out by them being in different areas, consider the impact of a train station moving from one part of a town to another.

All that aside, there are two separate issues which seem to attract interest.The first is what is included in the valuation of a property being taxed. The Sunday Express luridly suggests that “the number of bedrooms and bathrooms they have to whether they have outbuildings or a conservatory. Good parking, transport links and even “pretty views” are factored in“.

I’m not sure why the pretty views are in scare quotes. Pretty views are a major factor for a lot of people when buying a house! They certainly were for my parents, and I expect it will have a major impact on the resale value of their home, which would be a modest 4-bed suburban detached house, were it not for the rolling views of some of the finest scenery in England from the living room and two of the bedrooms (thanks to being built atop a disused quarry and former landfill, but let’s gloss over that). We could simply tax square footage, but we don’t. Obviously a balance has to be struck between simplicity and accuracy, but in principle if people are being taxed on how much their house is worth, surely they have the right to expect that to be determined as accurately as possible?

The second is whether a revaluation would simply lead to an increase in bills. Here the baton is picked up by Dizzy, who fears that revaluing today would push most houses into the top band and therefore lead to people paying more. Fair play to him, on paper this is understandable – the bands are very low, since they were designed for houses in 1991, and the value of homes has increased massively (unsustainably, as people began to recognise in 2007, but that’s an argument for another day) since then. Wales revalued and there was at the same time a slightly larger increase in the tax take than in the rest of the country.

However, firstly it would stretch credulity to anticipate that revaluation would happen without the creation of a new set of bands, and these would account for the fact that, whereas the current top band begins at £320,000 in 1991 prices, that is simply the price of a modest 2-bedroom flat in much of London and the South East at 2009 prices. Secondly, even if the valuation were not done on that basis, and most properties were crammed into the top band, it would not lead to an increase in everyone’s taxes, and it would certainly not lead to a hammering of the middle class. Bear with me, this is a little bit technical, but has to do with how Council tax is set. Obviously the politicians will have a view about roughly what they’re aiming for in terms of percentage increase or decrease, but finding the final number happens like this:

A Council, in determining the Council Tax rate, adds up everything they are agreed they will spend over the year. They then add up every source of income other than Council Tax which they anticipate receiving. This, sadly, leaves a gap. Suppose the numbers are £200m and £180m respectively. It is necessary to raise £20m from Council Tax. Next, this sum is divided by the number of “Band D equivalent” homes. This may be more or less than the number of homes actually in the area, since in much of the country the average is actually around Band B, though in some of London it is closer to E. Anyhow, let’s imagine that counting each house proportionately to the share of Band D tax it will pay, there are 100,000 band D equivalent homes. For simplicity, let’s assume this is because there are in fact 100,000 Band D homes in the area. This leaves us with an annual Council Tax of £200. Lucky people. If the houses aren’t all Band D, this is parcelled up as appropriate. Since they aren’t, it isn’t.

Now imagine a revaluation takes place on the old bands, and every house is pushed up to Band G, meaning they have to pay 15/9ths of the Band D Council Tax. At first sight, you might expect everyone’s Council Tax to leap to £333.33, but in fact this doesn’t happen. The Council still has £20m to raise, and the number of “Band D equivalent” homes rises from 100,000 to 166,667. So the new formula for Band D council tax works out at £120, and the Band G rate… £200. Everyone pays exactly the same. Of course in theory the Council could maintain the Band D rate and just spend more money, but no Council in the current climate would risk a 65% increase in Council Tax, nor would any national government allow it.

In reality, there’s a particular irony here. If you did do a revaluation on the old bands, the outcome would be that people in what are currently lower banded houses would rise further up the scale, and their council tax would increase, whereas people in higher banded houses have much less far left to rise, and would therefore end up paying less tax. Far from hammering the middle class, the theoretical situation would in fact hammer the working class, and amount in practice to the reintroduction of a type of poll tax, though a habitation based one rather than capitation (advantaging people who live quite densely – one of the groups who suffered most from the poll tax, families with grown up children still at home, professional sharers, etc).

Sorry, I have gone on rather, but I thought it was interesting.

Fair Votes?

The weekend’s action around the blogs contained a lot of chatter about the fairness or otherwise of our electoral system – so far, nothing unusual. What was unusual (perhaps Iain Dale talking about whether size matters should go in here) is that the complaints were coming primarily from Conservative blogs rather than Lib Dems, or a particular branch of Labour.

Instinctively, it’s easy to see why they are upset – the Conservatives get fewer seats in Parliament for a given share of the vote (around the 40% mark) than do the Labour Party. Ironically, despite being prime campaigners against the ‘unfairness’ of the system, if they somehow reached 40% of the vote the Lib Dems would do better than either under First Past the Post.

Anyway, the core case being made by the Conservatives was set out with the most clarity and detail by Paul Goodman, writing for ConservativeHome. Of course, in any system which is not directly proportional (most systems, then), it will be the case that one party may gain an advantage. However, the root cause appears to have been missed in the article, and by most commenters.

It is not solely, or even mainly, the drawing of the boundaries which leads to the advantage for Labour, it is turnout. Simply put, despite all the dealignment of recent decades, Labour voters are still far more likely than Conservative voters to be working class, and vice versa. Working class people are far more likely to stay at home on election day. Minor parties are also, generally, stronger in more Labour areas, meaning the vote share required to win is lower.

Given turnout and electorate numbers, then, it is fairly easy to work out how many people stayed at home in each constituency. While it is not entirely fair to ascribe assumed votes to people who chose not to vote, it does seem intuitively likely that they would vote in an approximately similar way to their friends, family, and neighbours. The largest constituency by a long way is the Isle of Wight, because they historically prefer to be united than to have more representation, and there 42,201 people stayed at home on election day. In Vauxhall, 30,000 fewer voters have the opportunity to be non-voters, yet slightly more actually managed it!

Thus, to pick two big seats with almost exactly the same electorate,  marginal Northampton South (89,722 eligible voters) produced a Conservative MP on a turnout of 60.7%. Next door, leafier Daventry (88,758 eligible voters) produced a Conservative MP on a turnout of 68.1%. That is to say, although 1000 fewer people were eligible to vote in Daventry, 6000 more actually chose to do so. Similarly, of the 69,764 voters eligible to back Oliver Letwin in his Dorset marginal, 24,763 chose to do so. This is in stark contrast to, say, Manchester Central, where a very similar 69,656 voters were eligible to return Tony Lloyd for a third term as the local Labour MP, but only 16,993 did so – and yet this was a landslide victory. If Manchester Central and Dorset West were the only constituencies in the country then the national share of the vote would have been 37% for the Lib Dems, 30% for the Conservatives, and 27% for Labour, but Parliament would have had 1 Labour MP, 1 Conservative, and no Lib Dems.

It’s not clear what can be done about this – making constituencies with low turnout larger seems intuitively unfair, judging people in advance for decisions they have not yet taken. Weighting MPs’ votes in Parliament to the number of votes they actually received would solve this ex post facto, but create tiers of MP and sounds a bit unwieldy. National-level PR has its own set of disadvantages, and while it has many supporters I doubt that it is what the Conservatives currently getting exercised about this problem are proposing as a solution. 

To illustrate that this isn’t some specific gerrymander, exactly the same thing happens in local council elections. In a number of elections over the last decade – particularly in large mixed urban/rural areas such as shire counties, Labour have retained control of a council in an election at which the Conservatives had a higher proportion of the authoritywide vote.

One solution in the case of a local authority, of course, is the direct election of a powerful leader – this appeals to both major parties, the Conservatives since they believe differential turnout helps them a great deal, and Labour because they have become used to sweeping up the majority of Liberal Democrat second preferences in an Alternative Vote electoral system. So far the experiment has been limited to cities, but it seems to me that something either works, or it doesn’t, and a directly elected leader model could be transposed to rural and county authorities.

To coin a phrase, getting mad is easy. Getting even is much more complicated.

Topping the poll

Congratulations to Luke Akehurst for a second year as number one in the “Top Blogs by a Councillor” listings at totalpolitics.  Luke’s blog is undoubtedly a fascinating read if you want to hear about the latest in internal Labour Party fights, the thinking behind Government decisions, and why the Labour Left and the Tory Right are necessarily wrong about everything (the ontological argument for Blairism). Congratulations too to new entry at Number 2 and occasional LGO correspondent Paul of The Bickerstaffe Record.

It is perhaps telling, though, that the further you go up the top 30, the more they are blogs by Councillors, and the less they are blogs about being a Councillor. Perhaps that’s the nature of a poll for which everyone votes – local politics will only rarely be very interesting to people who don’t live in the local area in question. Anyway, well done all, well done as well to those very good blogs who opted out for their own reasons, but would clearly have done well had they participated. Some new reading for me, and maybe some new links to add…

21st Century Vanity Publishing

I’m certainly not asking anyone to do this – apart from anything else getting recognition seems to be a fast route to losing anonymity for bloggers of my ilk. I do, though, think it’s a good thing in principle – more to raise the profile of different blogs than to rank one over another – and a reader has already been in touch to say they have voted for me, so:

Vote by e-mail to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com. Vote for ten, in order, no more, no fewer. Sadly the rules forbid me from telling you how I plan to cast my own vote, lest I seem to be running some sort of unofficial slate. Being anonymous I could even vote for myself, but I shall rise above such petty temptations.

Despite some apparent confusion, you don’t have to be a blogger yourself to vote. Anyway there we are, in the tradition of all good election campaigning, vote how you want, but do vote. 🙂

Oh look, an automated graphic smiling face rather than just text – that reminds me, and indeed much more importantly: I forgot in my review of LGA Conference to mention what was clearly the best thing at the exhibition. I want one.

Night, Jack

This is unhelpful on a fairly fundamental level to people like me. Though I’m very much on the side of my employer on almost every issue, and don’t know the kind of exciting secrets that anyone would wish to hear, I enjoy reading blogs by people working on the real front line of public services. I am particularly aware of the value those have in bringing to light the reality behind the debates, targets, and tractor production statistics that public services often become in Westminster and Whitehall.

I worry that the reasons given for clamping down on public sector bloggers (and shame, shame and thrice shame on The Times for being an instrument of Nightjack’s downfall) has as much to do with the power some of those bloggers have to communicate with the public over the head of politicians – to tell them that they aren’t mad when they think police targets and procedures are skewed and get in the way of real crime prevention and detection, or that access to healthcare services doesn’t run on the 48-hours to see a GP and 2-weeks to see a consultant who you can “choose and book” model – as it does with the stated reasons.

We have protection, up to the point of statute, for public sector whistleblowers who want to draw the attention of those in positions of influence to wrongdoing by going over the heads of their direct managers, and if necessary to the media. Why do we have nothing to protect those who want to draw the attention of the public at large to whole-system failure? The judge ruled that the public interest in Nightjack’s name was an overriding factor. What about the public interest in hearing about how their taxes are being spent, and how they are or are not being protected from crime?

Hopi proposes an e-mail campaign asking The Times to apologise. I endorse this product and / or service.

Andy Through the Looking Glass

Andy Sawford of the Local Government Information Unit (a membership body that does collective research work for Councils who join) takes readers on a romp through CLG publication “Local Government Financial Statistics England No.19 2009”.  Recommended reading even if you don’t normally read the LGIU blog – and if you’re interested in local government, you really should.

It’s all good, but I thought this was particularly interesting, in the light of my ongoing battle with political commentators suggesting that comparing Band D Council Tax between authorities and saying one “charges more” can be misleading; In the North East, 56 per cent of dwellings are in the lowest council tax band – Band A, compared to just 3 per cent in London. So the majority of people in the North East pay at most 67% of whatever is set as the Band D tax rate.