Eric Pickles, communities secretary, says today that his plan for council tax will be a “radical extension of direct democracy” which will “let the people decide“.
Under his proposals, the public will have the power to veto excessive council tax rises. (At present only ministers can ‘cap’ these increases).
Any council setting its increase above a set ceiling (approved in, er, Parliament) will trigger an automatic referendum of all registered electors in its area – at the cost of tens of thousands of pounds. The cost alone (at a time of tight budgets) will prevent most local authorities from even trying to carry out big increase.
They will also shy away from such exercises because they know that - in most cases - the public will almost certainly veto the rise, judging by past experience*.
That means the vital decision is the exact level of the ceiling, which will be set by MPs in London. In which case; does this translate into a transfer of power to local people? In effect, probably not.
The most truly democratic/localist way of doing this would be to let councils do what they want. If voters are angered by council tax rises they can vote out their councillors.
* In 2002 Blair allowed a clutch of councils to hold referendums on council tax rises, including Croydon, Bristol and Milton Keynes. Most voters unsurprisingly went for the lowest rise (or freeze).
Meanwhile John Denham, shadow communities secretary, points out that few councils have had to be capped in recent years. Although council tax has doubled since 1997, most of the big rises were in the earlier years of New Labour. “His referendum is claiming to solve a problem that need not exist,” says Denham.
The Squareglasses blog agrees that the referendums will essentially load the system in favour of low tax increases. Pickles was on the Today programme this morning suggesting they could be extended to assess public support for other council initatives.
Although when John Humphries asked if he wanted to go down the California road the minister started to sound a bit uncomfortable.
To quote Squareglasses:
California is an extreme example of where low-tax bias takes you. Under Proposition 13, the state has capped property taxes *and* requires a supermajority for any revenue-raising measures. Right now, recession-hit public finances are in a total mess, but it’s proving politically impossible to pass a budget. As a result, one small town is now disbanding its police force.