Monday, January 09, 2012

Nothing Comes Free

An interesting statement on Thanet Online over the weekend which begs the question in regard to people's understanding of how their council tax might be spent.

Michael Child writes: " I pay the council to do various things on my behalf, one of which is to promote and supply information about Thanet events online."

This is an interesting argument, because if I use an analogy, it implies that I might be a season ticket holder at Margate FC but might expect the same benefits and value as a season ticket holder at Manchester United!

Any council is obliged to provide a raft of statutory services, of which there is a list and councils invariably spend what they have left on 'Nice to have' rather than 'Need to have' services. Over the last fifteen years or so, thanks to the generosity and extravagance of successive Labour governments, the list of services has expanded almost as quickly as the army of well-pensioned public servants employed to oversee them.

Today, we find ourselves in somewhat harsher economic conditions with £3 million cut from the budget. Councils up and down the land are exploring what they have to provide and what they can no longer afford to provide on a shoestring, to meet reduced grants, income from business rates and what little they actually have to keep from the council tax.

I dare say that in Thanet, if a handful of well-known enthusiasts, did not keep throwing  expensive and time-consuming Freedom of Information requests at the council, then  we wouldn't be worried about the revenue loss from offering thirty minutes free parking in Birchington.

Now I would like the council to provide lots of things and achieve world peace at the same time but I know that the financial and resource gap between obligation and aspiration is a huge one and becoming larger all the time.

Local government does what it can within its budget. A relatively poor area such as Thanet cannot afford the ambitions of a wealthier district such as Henley, the income simply doesn't exist. There's a constant pressure on services to be more efficient and cost effective in the public sector but frequently, as I see in  the  IT business giants, too few people end-up spinning too many plates and the result is predictable.

Money talks but here in Thanet, there's always been an emphasis, as I've written before, on delivering resource to the most hard-pressed and deprived members of our community. For many of them, the internet and blogging is invariably something that only other people can afford to indulge in but also explains, given the challenges we face, why "Nice to have" always seems to be out of reach.


Readit said...

Michael's comment may be an over simplification but it is basically true. In the "real" world if you set up to provide a service then you must throw sufficient resources at it to make a success, otherwise you go bankrupt.

TDC is not a "care home" for the deprived it should provide services equally across the board. Thanet, and Margate in particular has hung it's future on tourism, so a high standard of tourism information should be a key service.

Anonymous said...

The difference between the expectations of a Margate Season Ticket holder and a Manchester United season ticket holder can be measured by £810 being the extra amount an idiot pays to watch Mancester United.

DrM. said...

This isn't the real world Ken, it's local government!

Thanet provides a number of tourism services to promote activities and events but not to the degree that Michael likes, simply because the money doesn't exist.

There are lots of services that the council could cease or cut back on to save money and most likely will over the coming years. Unlike a business, a council can't seek an overdraft and has to work within the budget it has available.

It does its best with what it has and be grateful that council tax will not be rising!

Readit said...

Simon, nobody is saying TDC MUST provide such a service, but IF they do it should be FIT FOR PURPOSE.

Your administration cut back of VICs in Broadstairs and Ramsgate to concentrate on Margate, perhaps scrapping the on-line service would have been more cost effective.

If you turn up on Saturday afternoon at Margate FC with your season ticket, only to find that the game had been played Friday evening and you had not been notified, you would have a right to be miffed and question their communication skills.

Michael Child said...

Simon, Not really sure if the tourist information department in the council is something we need to have or is nice to have, the fact remains that we have got it. Five full time paid council officers and one part time. Three websites. An automated telephone switchboard, which defies anything I could describe when you consider that all of these officers work in one small building and there aren’t likely to be more than three of them there at one time. Here’s the number, give yourself a treat, Thanet 577577, you may wish to consider, as a chap in the banner flying business, what exactly would happen to your customers if they encountered something like this when they rang you up, instead of say you just picking up the phone or had call forwarding to your mobile. Of course they may be having to deal with the most hard pressed members of the community in between giving out information about what’s on, they may even be organising world, peace however they may not be.

Now it is my intention to ask them to explain to me why they can’t get information about even events that occur every year onto any of their websites, so people can find out what it is that is going on, or in the case of the annual Broadstairs fireworks event, not going off.

Are you genuinely suggesting that officers normally carrying out essential services, emptying rubbish bins, sweeping the streets or caring for the most vulnerable will be taken off of these essential tasks to explain why the tourist information department fail to get important events onto their website?

Alternatively are you suggesting that I should just leave the issue, one of their websites with no events for January, one with one event and one managed for them by an outside commercial firm and paid for out of council funds, where they don’t seem to get as far emailing a list of what’s on this month?

DrM. said...

Fit for whose purpose Ken?

It works pretty well but the council can't afford all the online bells and whistles that wealthier districts can.

As I've said written before, any particular discrimination alleged against Ramsgate, which has its own Town Council is complete rubbish with a capital 'R'

DrM. said...

No Michael, I'm saying, as I have said many times before on the same, bee in your bonnet subject, that you simply will not drop, that everything can be done better but that the public money doesn't exist to achieve what you want and the council wastes resource and public money, dealing with your near stream of requests. FOI and otherwise.

Fortunately it's not my problem!

Michael Child said...

Simon could you take a moment to look at two of the council funded events websites

as I think you may have got at cross purposes as to what I am talking about here.

Anonymous said...

If there was just one comprehensive what's on website this would reduce costs and cut back on duplication of effort.

Also The Taxpayer's Alliance has researched council tax collection rates and it seems that TDC has the worst rate in Kent for year to March 2011 at 96.3%. Of course it would be easy to say that this is all due to deprivation but when the best Council is the hardly affluent Dover at 99.1%, there must be a bit more to it. Also those who can't afford to pay (as judged by Government - lots of us think we can't!) would presumably be on council tax benefit anyway so I would have thought this shouldn't affect the numbers. So maybe if we could get up to Dover's rate we would have a bit more money to spend on the 'nice to have' services like a what's on website.

If anyone is interested the figures are on table 7 of link below (think I've read them right but open to correction if I'm wrong!):

DrM. said...

If in fact you factor in the deprivation index we have one of the 'best rates' of collection in the South-east I'm afraid your argument doesn't wash. I'm afraid we have some of the highest transient population figures; i.e. over 30% annual 'churn' in Cliftonville alone. So unless you want the most vulnerable left on the streets with no hope of collecting council tax or council rents, think again.

Readit said...

Simon, "Fit for purpose" is an industry standard term as you well know, which I suppose could be translated to "providing value for money".

It therefore bears no relationship to the overall amount spent only that the return achieved should exceed the amount spent however large or small

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments on council tax collection rates but why wouldn't the most vulnerable get benefits to pay their council tax and council rents? Surely they should get help to get what they are entitled to so we only have to collect money from those that can afford to pay so it's a level playing field. i.e. why should the deprivation index affect things as benefits should help the deprived?

Also Dover must have quite a high transient population but they the best rate.

On a separate note as has been written elsewhere it's excellent that you communicate via the local blogs and it helps raise understanding within the area, which sometimes needs an 'insiders' perspective.

Margate Architecture said...

You refer, Simon to FOI requests. Perhaps if officers and some of them as senior as it goes, actually replied to normal requests or dealt with issues correctly, or if the Council published data more openly then FOI requests would not be necessary.