We Won’t Be Fooled Again

Here’s a question for you: which party promised, in their June 2001 election Manifesto: “We are committed to delivering lower taxation with superior public services through increased efficiency and value for money.”? Answer: the Conservative Party, in their Essex County Council election manifesto.

Too easy? OK, here’s another: which party is now recommending a council tax rise of nearly 10%, along with proposals to underfund schools and reduce spending on highways? Answer: see above.

Yes, the party which promised reduced taxes and better services is now promising higher taxes and reduced services. A typical taxpayer will be asked for another £70.00 a year by a Tory County Council which will then spend less than we need in Essex – particularly on our schools and roads. This is the highest council tax rise since the shock increase of 14.9% in 1998 (also by the Tories, in case you wondered).

As a teacher, I am appalled to find that a County Council which I had always assumed valued education is proposing to spend less than the government recommends on schools. For the first time in ten years, our local authority will not be putting into schools the money the government thinks necessary to provide a decent education service. This is not only a slap in the face for education workers all over Essex, but also for our children, who surely deserve better.

Equally puzzling is the proposal to cut road spending. Don’t forget, one of the Tories’ election promises was to “get Essex moving again, tackling road congestion and improving public transport.” Anyone who uses Essex roads regularly must be aware that after two bad winters they are deteriorating rapidly. Yet our elected representatives are proposing to reduce spending on highways maintenance.

I wonder why this is? Do our councillors not care about the education of our children? Do they think the state of our roads is not a matter of public concern? I’m afraid my cynical nature may have seen through their budgetary sleight of hand.

Last year, the County Council bent over backwards to keep the council tax below £700. They just managed it – a Band D taxpayer being asked for £699.48, just a penny a week below the magic figure. They took a gamble, despite advice from their finance officers that they were risking bankruptcy. Their luck has held, for a year – and now we are being asked to pay the price.

The big trick this year is to keep the rise in council tax below 10%. So we are being asked for only 9.8% extra. And the price for this generosity? Less money for schools, worse roads. And who will have to pay? All council taxpayers of course – but as always, the heavier burden falls on older people on fixed incomes.

No wonder people are getting weary of politicians and their promises. The Liberal Democrats were only party in the last election (and the one before that) to campaign on the staggeringly obvious truth that you can only have better public services if you are prepared to pay for them.

It’s worth laying out the alternatives, obvious or not. Either we pay for a decent education, good health care, a reliable police force, or we pay less council tax – but get a less than decent education for our children, an underfunded NHS, a police force that is stretched beyond its capabilities.

Most of us aren’t actually as daft as some politicians seem to believe. We know that a better educated and healthier society benefits everybody. We know that it is not really worth a penny off our income tax if cuts in police numbers make us afraid to go out at night.

The Tories will moan that they are doing their best with the meagre offerings of a Labour government. But wait – what is that curious flapping sound I hear? Is it the sound of chickens coming home to roost? Tell me, which party sucked power from local government during their 18 years of national office, reducing funding year after year while imposing increasingly onerous statutory duties?

Yes, indeed; the Tories have finally realised that a genuine interest in our public services is the key to their eventual re-election. But it will be a long time before people forget that it was the Tories who left the legacy of neglect which still threatens to overwhelm a pusillanimous Labour government. We bought the illusory promise of lower taxes and better services for two decades – but we won’t be fooled again.