Double the sewage, triple the stink

Date:

This article is published on the day that Dorset Council election votes are counted. By the time you read this, the celebrations and disappointments of candidates will be clear, and you will know whether Dorset Council remains in Conservative control, or if that control has passed to a Liberal Democrat-led group. Naturally, I prefer the Lib Dem-led outcome, and believe that Dorset will be a much better run and more accountable council until 2029 with that result.
Whoever wins in Dorset will have to contend with serious financial constraints. Dorset Council may not be in the dire straits of those like Birmingham and Woking that have effectively become insolvent, but as you will all know, this is at least as much to do with Dorset residents paying some of the highest council taxes in the country – routinely top-ten and currently top-three. Campaigning here in North Dorset in recent weeks, we heard time and again that North Dorset is not seeing the benefits of this high taxation. The new council’s wriggle room will be limited, but we look forward to a more transparent and even distribution of funding.
Local elections get less attention than those for Westminster, and the national media simply use them as a way to read the government’s tea leaves.
Yet local government provides so many essential services that make society work. For example, councils must by law provide adult and children’s care, which consumes two thirds of total local government budgets. The costs of care have rocketed in recent years. Councils barely meet their statutory duties, and many run deficits. While Westminster can borrow at will, councils must balance the books. Conservatives will say they have increased local government funding by 11 per cent in real terms since 2021 and that is true. What they won’t say is that they had cut council funding by more than 25% – up to 50% in poorer areas – in real terms in the years before that.
So difficult are the current conditions that the government had to rustle up a quick £600m in January this year to stop even more councils going bankrupt. Again, they will paint this as generosity: in reality it was slamming the car into reverse when it was halfway over the cliff edge.
When you consider the many and complex ways national taxes are taken, the contrast with the directness of that annual council tax bill that landed on the doormat last month is stark.
But the apparent simplicity masks a shockingly complex and highly political formula for council funding – and the only beneficiaries of this complexity have been national governments needing to get out of political holes. The current funding formula is decades old, unfair, opaque … and has reduced local councils to begging for grant funding from central government to construct half-viable budgets, while eroding local democracy.
The next national government must extract the Fair Funding Review – promised for many years – out of the long grass, where it was kicked by the current government, and use it to re-energise and simplify local government. The Conservatives have talked the talk on levelling up and decentralising power, but Liberal Democrats will help the next government to walk the walk, to get local government back on its feet – and properly serve all of Dorset’s residents.
Gary Jackson
North Dorset Liberal Democrats

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