HARRY PHIBBS: 100 ways to cut your Council Tax - WITHOUT cutting services
By Harry Phibbs
It really should be possible to cut Council Tax without cutting services - something we all need in such difficult economic times., journalist Harry Phibbs, a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham, comes up with 100 ways to make savings.
If you have any other ideas then have your say by leaving a comment at the end of this article.
Harry's 100 ways1. Freeze recruitment.
2. Scrap political advisers.
3. Cut the number of press officers. One rule would be to make sure you have no more than the number of local newspaper reporters. An alternative idea would be to get rid of the press office altogether. Why not just put journalists through to the Leader's secretary who gives them the number for the relevant councillor?
4. Scrap the council newspaper. Unless, as in the case of my Council, you make it self financing through real, private sector, advertising.
5. Cut the number of Scrutiny Coordinators. One full time person to organise all the scrutiny meetings should be enough.
6. Cut the number of coordinators for assorted other committees and panels.
Child care: Place more vulnerable children up for adoption instead of in an expensive children's home
7. Place more children for adoption. Reducing the number of Looked After children by placing more of them in permanent loving homes is principally good news for them. But it is also good news for the Council Taxpayer. Social workers are often risk averse about adoption but it overwhelmingly offers better life chances than keeping children in care. What is your performance as measured by the number of Looked After Children per 10,000 children in your area? What are the barriers to adoption caused by avoidable bureaucratic delay or politically correct prejudices?
8. For those children who remain in care, where possible send them to boarding schools.
9. Where children remain in care, keep to a minimum sending them to institutional children's home, but place them for fostering in family homes. This is much better for the children. Also even the specialist, highly paid foster carers who can cope with "challenging" children are far less costly than the phenomenally expensive children's homes.
10. Cut any subsidies to private landlords.
11. Do you have a Town Hall canteen? How many meals does it serve and what is its subsidy? Remember to take account of the cost of the space it is taking up. Probably it should be closed and the council officers find better fare along the high street at spud-u-like.
12. Charge to hold events in parks. Make sure you charge enough to reflect the need to clear up afterwards and protect the grass. Also that the choice of events is sensitive to the wishes of residents. But often revenue can be secured for events which residents enjoy - annual fireworks, an ice rink, open air opera, farmers markets, fun fairs, etc.
13. Stop funding translations/interpreting for Council documents and services and funding refugee lobby groups. This money is much better spent teaching people English. But even redirecting some of it you should still find some change for Council Tax cuts.
14. Scrap arts subsidies. Giving subsidies to one theatre so they can run plays that residents would not be willing to finance by paying to go and see them is not a reasonable use of Council Taxpayers money.
15. Don't employ Fair Trade Coordinators.
16. Don't employ Diversity Officers.
17. The old fashioned Public Lavatories represent pretty poor value for money in terms of maintenance. Often the buildings could be valuable capital assets. A better arrangement is to pay pubs a small fee for agreeing to allow non drinkers to use their loos. Also have more of those pay toilet cubicles on street corners.
Saving a penny: Poorly maintained public toilets could be sold off as valuable cash assets
18. Include private sector advertising on Council notice boards.
19. Cease funding Law Centres. (A double saving as they often sue the local council so the Council Taxpayers end us paying for the lawyers on both sides.)
20. Libraries. Change the rota system to keep them open during lunch hours and also reduce staff numbers at the same time.
21. Cut spending on advertising. Of course freezing recruitment will help. If your Council newspaper is fortnightly you can place the statutory ads there.
22. Scrap school governor training/'support'. It just puts people off becoming governors with a lot of bureaucratic jargon.
23. Stop spending money on management consultants.
24. Close the Film Unit if your Council has one. Someone can take bookings as a sideline - this doesn't need a full time post let alone a team.
25. Sell off Council owned waste land for market housing.
26. Have fewer council buildings. This can mainly be achieved by reducing the number of staff but also by smarter working. You can encourage more staff to work from home.
27. Use 'hot desking.'
28. Cancel your annual subscription to the Local Government Association. This is a surprisingly significant sum. My Council pays £48,125.
29. Cancel your membership sub to the Local Government Information Unit.
30. Cancel your membership subs to most other bodies you are members of.
31. Or at least push for a reduction. For instance I think there is a purpose in the London Boroughs being members of London Councils but the cost is far too high.
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32. Stop sending people off to conferences. One advantage of not being members of these bodies is that there won't be the same scope for sending staff off to their events at vast expense.
33. Ensure you have regular updates on projected asset sales. This is a crucial means of reducing debt and thus the debt interest payments which are often a big component of what the Council Tax funds.
34. If you don't have debt and have reserves in the bank, why are you keeping the reserves? You will only end up being tempted to spend it on something. The reserves should be diminished by lower Council Tax. Remember whose money it is.
35. Spending on the disabled and elderly should be focused on practical help not funding politicised advocacy lobby groups. Total spending in this area could be cut leaving room for lower Council Tax while still spending more on voluntary groups such as Help the Aged that provide caring, practical help.
36. Employing full time Disabled Access Officers in the Planning Department is poor value for money. Planning applications have to meet statutory requirements for disabled access but it should not be for Councils to engage in 'gold plating.'
37. Offer partnership deals with neighbouring Councils to reduce administration costs.
38. Use sprinklers in care homes allowing a potential reduction in night staff and safer elderly residents.
39. Shop around for your insurance premiums.
40. Reduce staff training to the statutory minimum.
41. Cease to employ staff to be trade union officials.
42. Charge for use of the staff car park.
43. Reduce the energy bill for street lighting. At present most Councils have excessive street lighting. As with much else this is due to a culture of being unduly risk averse over health and safety. Aside from the cost, we cause light pollution and increase our carbon footprint. For instance if the lights presently go on 30 minutes after sunset to come off at 30 minutes before sunrise, how much could be saved by having the lights going on an hour after sunset and switching them off an hour before sunrise?
44. Have periods where only half the lights are switched on (eg between 3am and 5am when scarcely anyone is using the streets.)
45. Scrap Local Education Authority clerking service for school governor meetings. One of the governors or the headmaster's secretary can take the minutes.
46. Put all services out to tender as Essex is doing - with a target of £200 million savings over three years.
47. Remember that voluntary and church groups as well as private firms may offer a better means of providing a service than the Council's own workforce, for instance in providing additional assistance to children with literacy problems.
48. Encourage residents to use the Mail Preference Service which stops addressed junk mail and then saves the cost of disposing of it. Direct Mail 'individually addressed advertising messages' accounts for 181,500 tons nationally. Say a largish council has 1,000 tons of it to dispose of at a cost of £83 a ton. That's £83,000 a year it spends putting people's junk mail on landfill.
49. Ban mineral water at meetings. Use tap water instead. This has saved us £36,000 a year in Hammersmith and Fulham.
50. Save money on printing. Stop producing glossy brochures. The thicker the paper, the shinier the pages, the brighter the colours - and the more residents think: 'So this is what my Council Tax goes on.' The printing bill for a typical council is literally millions of pounds.
51. Turn down the temperature in the Town Hall and other Council buildings. How low does the temperature get before the heaters come on? We used to have the windows open and the heaters blasting away at the same time.
52. Cut transaction costs by offering a discount to those who pay by direct debit, for instance for the Council Tax.
53. Cut transaction cost by facilitating as much as possible via the website - eg allow parking permits to be renewed online. It also may make sense to offer discounts for payments online.
54. Take a tough line in dismissing staff for persistent absenteeism. Monitor those who particularly claim to be sick on Fridays and Mondays. This will be easier having ceased funding full time union posts as the unions string out hearings for as long as possible. More positively, look at ways to improve the health of Council staff. Flu jabs represent good value for money in reducing genuine sickness.
55.Keep a tight grip on spending on agency staff.
56. Encourage staff to suggest efficiencies. Offer a prize for the best suggestions. But also allow anonymous entries.
57. Ensure that the numbers of staff engaged in health and safety enforcement is kept to the statutory minimum.
58. Combine the post of Finance Director and Chief Executive.
59. Give park wardens targets for imposing Fixed Penalty Notice fines for littering and dog fouling.
60. See if cafes could be opened in redundant park buildings thus allowing a revenue stream to the Council in rent.
61. Assess whether the staff employed to collect fees cost more in salaries than the income they gather in. For instance if you are employing three people to collect £15,000 a year from cafes for having tables and chairs on the pavement, this is not good value for money.
62. Where extra spending would secure a desirable objective consider whether the money could come from sponsorship rather than the Council. For instance new street trees could be funded by encouraging households to sponsor a new tree in their street, Christmas lights can be sponsored by local business.
63. End garden waste collection. Apart from the financial cost they do more harm than good for the environment. Much better value is promoting composting for instance by offering everyone a free composter.
64. Save money relocating some Council operations to parts of the country where costs are lower. Westminster Council has saved very substantial sums by moving back office processing operations and telephone services which don't require specialist knowledge. There are now 250-300 staff in Dingwall, Scotland, employed by a company called Vertex working for Westminster Council undertaking a great range of services.
65. Freeze councillor allowances.
66. Reduce storage costs and insurance costs by making sure the Council is not keeping equipment that is never used.
67. Cut down the number of cars for the Parks Constabulary. It's better to have them patrolling on foot anyway.
68. Review all the items you charge for. Cease offering services you charge for which run at a loss and merely duplicate what is offered commercially or by charities.
69. Cease charging where the transaction costs are greater than the revenue, for example charging schools to use parks for sports days. Towing cars away for mild parking offences can break even or run at a loss despite the heavy fines charged.
70. In the case of some services charge more. Compare your charges to other Councils.
Do the maths: Keep a tight grip on spending and monitor where the money goes
71. Open cafes in the corner of libraries where there is some space. This could produce revenue as well as attracting more library users.
72. Rationalise the number of Council departments. In Hammersmith and Fulham we have done this and thus reduced the number of officers on six figure salaries.
73. Look at the cost effectiveness of housing grants. How many people are employed administering these grants? How many go to owner occupiers who, even if cash poor, are asset rich and could be eligible for equity release schemes to fund home improvements?
74. Scrap politically correct requirements for contractors. For instance requiring a building firm tendering for work to produce an "equalities policy." All firms have to abide by plenty of statutory requirements on equality as it is. Councils should not be involved in gold plating. It imposes a double cost.
75. Cease funding racially separatist groups.
76. Seek an arrangement with central Government that the Council is given some financial reward for reducing bills to central Government, for instance in reducing welfare dependency.
77. Art leasing. Often Councils have valuable works of arts that aren't on display and cost money in storage and insurance. Sometimes selling them may not be appropriate or even legally possible if they have been given to the Council. But revenue could also be obtained from leasing the works of arts.
78. Town Hall bookings. Often Town Halls and other municipal buildings sit empty at weekends. Take a more aggressive and creative stance in seeking revenue from bookings. Consider using private agencies for this.
79. Charge for teaching other Councils how to set up specialist services. For instance if you have a CCTV Control Room whose manager has the relevant qualifications there could be substantial revenue in him running occasional courses in how to operate it.
80. Speed up the planning process. Charging high fees is reasonable if there is a quick, efficient service. Give clear guidelines about the basics such as good design in the initial stages but reduce the gold plating demands on matters such as health and safety and disabled access. A lot of officers spend their time on such matters but the statutory requirements are quite onerous enough.
81. Put in an arrangement where the Council leader and Cabinet Members have a firm grip on spending. The threshold for where spending needs to be authorised by the leader has been reduced from £300,000 to £100,000 in my borough. Of course there is no point in doing this if the leader is a pussycat who waves everything through.
82. Any recruitment of new posts should be approved by the Vacancy Management Panel chaired by the Council leader.
83. Don't be too proud to constantly check if other authorities are achieving lower costs or higher standards for a service and if so if they are achieving this through greater efficiency. Benchmark. Benchmark. Benchmark. After that do some more benchmarking.
84. Set maximum number of word limits on the length of reports submitted by officers. Long reports that nobody reads are a waste of officer time and a means of avoiding accountability for spending.
85. Set limits to the length of responses to Member Enquiries. They should answer the question raised and not be essays on the general subject. Saving officer time allows for fewer officers to be employed.
86. Youth Clubs and Youth Centres. These should not be run by the Council: they are typically pretty drab, dreary institutions when they are. Some of the money saved by closing them could go in higher grants to charitable and church groups which run youth groups, or partnership arrangements with the private sector or groups like the Prince's Trust who provide facilities for the young.
87. Cease employing Youth Workers. Activities such as Youth Forums and Youth Parliaments are generally pretty meaningless and low in numbers participating. Instead look at initiatives that don't really cost money. Hosting school debating competitions at the Town Hall for instance - which can also provide a positive opportunity for children from LEA and independent schools to mix. These can be organised by the schools themselves without employment of Youth Workers.
Youth work: Youth worker Fred Peters co-founded the Ethelred Estate Community Youth Club in south London in 1981
88. Check the list of those outside bodies being given free or subsidised office space by the Council, for instance trade unions. They could well be in buildings which could be sold.
89. Where Post Offices are threatened with closure see if there would be space for them to be relocated in a Council library. This would offer an income stream while also saving an important local service for the community.
90. Cease employing European Officers. I understand they are particularly prevalent on County Councils. Essentially they are propagandists for European integration.
91. Ensure you have the highest possible penalties for staff engaged in fraud.
92. Cease employing Work Experience Coordinators.
93. Scrap all 'nanny state' posts, 'Five a Day' officers, etc.
94. Use energy saving lightbulbs.
95. Review areas where the Council is operating in competition with the private sector. Does the Council own any pubs? Or shops? Or leisure centres? Or theatres? Are libraries providing DVD hire or internet access at £1 an hour? My council used to own and run a high street laundrette.
96. Look at the eligibility criteria for some of the services offered. Should pensioners all be treated the same or should the age limit sometimes be raised which might allow extra help for the very old as well as saving money? Take, for instance, the London wide TaxiCard scheme where the London Boroughs each pay hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Should we raise the age of those eligible to 70? Why do we give 65-year-olds free taxi rides? One of the residents in my ward is John Humphrys who is 65 - why should we pay for his taxis?
97. Sell off redundant park lodges by the entrances to parks and cemeteries for market housing. Apart from the revenue often these beautiful buildings become eyesore when left empty with their windows boarded up, etc.
98. Generally claims of 'spend to save' or 'investment' should be treated with scepticism. But within budgets there will sometimes be genuine possibilities. For example, providing more litter bins might be a more cost effective way of reducing street litter than employing more road sweepers.
99. Performance related pay for departmental managers. If they come in under budget they get a bonus. If they come in over budget they get their pay docked. I think Westminster do this.
100. Do not have children's playgroups directly run by the Council. Instead better value for less money can be achieved through funding this much needed resource via the voluntary sector, church groups and independent groups of mothers.