27 February 2009
Southwark Council made much of its Council Tax freeze in its annual budget a few weeks back. But if the costs of many essential services are rising, then isn't it just smoke and mirrors?
This week we report on a raft of price hikes, likely to be approved today, which are designed to create 'new income streams'. Just weeks after the council published its budget, this report sets out how Southwark residents would be facing much higher charges for services, from visitor parking permits to mortgage references.
Whereas before ten visitor parking permits would cost you £6.50, it will now cost you £20 - an eye watering increase of 208 per cent. A mortgage reference for the first time buyer used to cost £64 - from March 31 this will now cost £100 - an increase of 56 per cent. And that's not where it stops. Over the next two years, above inflation increases of five per cent each year will be added to the new charge structure.
The council defends these increases by comparing its charges with neighbouring boroughs and 'current market rates', which perhaps is not unreasonable. And, despite the parking permits more than trebling, they still cost just £2 a permit, which isn't a king's ransom. With a charge for a service such as a mortgage reference, whilst it does amount to a £36 increase, this isn't the type of service that you need very often - probably only once or twice. So whilst the impact on every resident isn't crippling, the cumulative effect means that the council can swell its coffers through a difficult financial period.
But the criticism of these increases is founded precisely on that point. In a recession, local authorities have to take account of the fact that those who rely on their services are also feeling the pinch. And to impose such significant increases at such a difficult time suggests that the council is more concerned with extracting revenue from local people than with helping them through the bad times.
The council’s defence of compariing ‘current market rates’ is interesting, justifying the ramping up of public services to private sector prices. Is the council saying that the previous rates - presumably way below market rates - were ridiculously low? Or does Southwark Council no longer see itself as a public service provider, and prefers to compare itself with cold-eyed private enterprise?
One difference of course - namely that you, the taxpayer, continue to foot the bill.
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