Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is the Daily Mail demanding higher public spending?

Just occasionally I wonder whether right-wing tabloids might not be entirely ideologically consistent. This week the Daily Mail took to task two councils for limiting households to 80 rubbish sacks per year, or as the headline put it:
Despite ministers' vows, bin police are at it again: Families are rationed to 80 bags of rubbish a year

But hang on a second: Conservative-run Wokingham Council says it will save over £900,000 by this proposal(presumably by reducing landfill costs). Now if there's one thing I thought I understood about right-wing tabloids' attitudes towards local councils, it's that they opposed unnecessary spending of taxpayers' money and the increased council tax levels that inevitably follow. So to be consistent the Mail should be applauding the thrift of Wokingham in saving public money by avoiding unnecessary costs.

A variant on this sort of confusion was shown a few weeks ago in the Sunday Times (tabloid in tone if not format and certainly right-of-centre) attacking councils for introducing 'stealth taxes'. On closer inspection it turned out that in many cases councils were actually increasing the fees charges for loss-making services that are to a greater or lesser extent subsidised by taxpayers (allotments, burial plots, bus passes etc.). While a Lib Dem like me might defend the social benefits such subsidies and accept increased charges at best with great reluctance, the Sunday Times surely ought to approve of what is effectively a public spending cut.

But it would be too much to expect ideological consistency from newspapers when government ministers are so confused. Conservative housing and local government minister Grant Shapps is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying on the refuse sacks issue:
If councils think they can hammer residents with stealth taxes through this sneaky route, the Government is prepared to take whatever steps necessary to protect taxpayers’ interests.’

Now there are two points here. In the first place what Wokingham is doing isn't a tax it's if anything a way of keeping tax down. And secondly, I thought the government wants to devolve decisions to local level, which is why it has just published a Localism Bill, which purports to 'shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils'. Now Mr Shapps wants to micromanage how individual councils organise their refuse service, and indeed any other decisions they may make that, however inaccurately, he categorises as 'stealth taxes'.

I suspect that all this reflects the ideological confusion of our age with its wish for Scandinavian-levels of public services at American levels of taxation. Shapps, Daily Mail, Sunday Times want spending cuts, but object to the measures that public bodies actually have to take to deliver such cuts, and the reality that this does have an impact on services to the public.

PS: I should say that Watford Borough Council has weekly waste collections, and uses wheelie bins not black sacks, so we are not planning to follow in Wokingham's footsteps.

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