Tax, Rubbish & Rats: Local Councils v Central Government

Have you seen the latest James Bond movie ‘Casino Royale’ yet? Do you dream of a job like that? Fast cars,flexible working hours,free international travel,adventure, a varied social life and substantial overtime pay.  The UK’s Security Services are looking for recruits. The days of taking on mainly Oxford & Cambridge University graduates have gone. Now they advertise openly in the national press. MI5 needs Mobile Surveillance Officers to gather intelligence ‘by observing people or places,either on foot or by vehicle’. You’d first though have to pass a ‘mentally & physically demanding’ 75 day course.

MI6/SIS (The Secret Intelligence Service) want Technology Specialists,Linguists (including fluent Spanish speakers) and (euphemistically-named )‘Operational Officers’. Your role would be to support the ‘worldwide collection of foreign intelligence & information to counter threats to Britain’s safety & economic well-being.’ The MI6/SIS Headquarters are on the north side of Vauxhall Bridge and reasonably safe. The building hasn’t been attacked since September 2000 (by a ‘Real IRA’ Russian-built Mark 22 anti-tank missile).If you have a British passport & are interested,visit and don’t tell anyone except your partner or immediate family (preferably not even them).

Espionage is definitely back in the news. Four of the suspected 30 spies at the Russian Embassy in London were expelled in July following the poisoning of dissident Alexander Litvinenko at the presumed instigation of President Putin and the SVR (the new KGB). Russian bombers have resumed their Cold War routine of flying close to British airspace. The Chinese military have been accused of trying to hack into the Pentagon,British & German computer systems and the Russians of doing the same with the Baltic States.

British Government surveillance,at least within the UK,appears to be very efficiently organised. There are now over 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the country – one for every 14 people. At the 2007 International Data Protection & Privacy Commissioners Conference in London,Britain was described as a ‘Surveillance Society’,the most controlled Western Democracy and in the bottom five of a 36-nation survey along with China and Malaysia. The book ‘Taking Liberties’ (now also a film) published this year contends that Tony Blair contemptuously used ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘the fight against crime’ as justifications for eroding Freedom of Speech and Civil Liberties in the UK.

What do you do with your rubbish? Where I live,we have to leave it out in the street every Thursday evening for collection the next morning. If we use the wrong-coloured bag,the dustmen won’t take it (& we could be fined). A third of the 376 local authorities in England and Wales now offer this service only on alternate weeks – and most others are considering doing the same to cut down on costs. Which  creates a delicate problem: If you keep your household waste indoors for 14 days it will start to smell and attract mice. If you put it outside,it will be torn apart and scattered by foxes (over 10,000 just in London) or rats (70 million in the UK). The other option ( apart from reducing your take-aways and shopping expeditions) is to take it yourself to the local rubbish dump. Earlier this year,some councils tried to introduce a new ‘pay-as-you-throw’ Rubbish Tax but then retreated when angry residents pointed out that the same ‘use-less pay-less’ philosophy should logically also apply to social services,transport and leisure facilities.

Local authorities get part of their money from Central Government grants to cover their expenditure on education,housing,libraries,’meals-on-wheels’ ( hot food deliveries for house-bound pensioners),street-cleaning and other responsibilities. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) says there is no extra cash available (the British economy is slowing down) but insists (totally unrealistically) this should ‘not be an excuse for excessive (above 5%) Council Tax increases or a reduction in the quality of services’.  Along with Business Rates and Parking Fines (motorists now have to rush to the ticket machine and back to their car before the Traffic Attendant hiding round the corner issues a Penalty Notice) Council Tax provides the main local source of income.

Council Tax in the UK has almost doubled since Tony Blair became Prime Minister.The average charge per dwelling in Britain in the current financial year (2007-8) is £1,078 compared to only £564 in 1997-8. In London it is lowest in Wandworth and Westminster and highest in Kingston and Richmond. There is one bill per property (paid by the owner or occupiers). Full-time (but not part-time) students and their partners are exempt. There are reduction benefits available for low-income earners and a 25% discount for people living alone.  Londoners will also controversially have to fund the costs (£9 billion and rising) of the 2012 Olympics.

The Labour Party traditionally believes it knows best how to spend (other) people’s money . The Conservatives’instinct is to let individuals decide for themselves what to do with their earnings.Their new policy on Inheritance Tax (it would be payable only above £1 million pounds) has massively boosted their popularity and reflects the rise in property values. At the moment many people can only pay the tax by selling the house they have just inherited.  Tax has become the hot political issue,the battlegound between the British Government,Local Councils and the main opposition parties.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on October 1st, 2007 by Colin D Gordon

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