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Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Council Tax

The different responses to the way that the Labour Assembly Government is proposing to spend the £22 million given to them by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep down Council Tax have been instructive.

Sue Essex, the Local Government and Finance Minister, has decided to ring-fence £19.5 million of this money to deal with bed-blocking, despite the expectation amongst councils that they would get an unhypothocated share that they could then use to meet local priorities and which would help them keep Council Tax down in an election year. Sue Essex said that legally she was unable to add this money to the local Government settlement as it came too late and that therefore she has to give it as a special grant. However, it was perfectly possible to add this to the Deprivation Grant, enabling an unhypothocated distribution of the money according to the greatest need. The prescriptive nature of this decision marks a sea-change in the way that the Labour Assembly Government is dealing with local Councils. Before it was an equal partnership, now the Government seems to want to run Councils from Cardiff, taking all the key spending decisions for them behind a smokescreen of rhetoric about empowerment and listening government. The first consequence of this decision was seen the same day. Powys County Council has cut £1 million off its schools budget. The extra money they are to be given for social care could have made a big difference to this decision if they had had a choice how to spend it.

Inevitably, the First Minister could not help wading in with his two-pennyworth. "Local authorities themselves had identified social care as being a major pressure on their budgets. To try to pretend getting £20 million is not good news for tax payers in Wales, I find it absolutely bizarre," he said. The problem of course, is that if his government has really listened to local Councils and followed their bidding, then why is virtually every Council Leader around Wales up in arms about the decision? The fact is that this so-called consultation did not happen, the decision was based on a six-month old document that was written before the extra money was known about and the Labour Assembly Government leapt in with both feet without looking, without asking and oblivious to the splash that they were going to make. To pretend afterwards that the decision was the result of active listening is disingenuous to say the least. What I do not understand is why a First Minister so committed to devolution cannot grasp the idea of local determination and the concept of Councils making their own decisions on priorities rather than having decisions made for them.

Finally, we have the MP, Huw Edwards from Monmouth, running to daddy to complain about the Assembly. Or to be precise Huw Edwards has asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to condemn the Assembly Government's decision. I know that MPs have felt disempowered by devolution but is that any reason to disentangle it so soon? If Huw is so concerned he should use the mechanisms within his own party to put pressure on the Assembly Government to change their mind rather than making fruitless gestures for public consumption. If he were able to do that then we would all be indebted to him.

Update: Things are really heating up now. It seems that the Welsh Labour MPs want Rhodri Morgan's head on a platter. They will have to get in the queue behind the Welsh Labour Council Leaders. The television news this evening was reporting a general feeling in the Welsh Labour Parliamentary Party that the Assembly will only get extra powers over their dead collective body.

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