Friday, 25 April 2008

Labour sells out local democracy for a few extra quid (while pensioners get poorer...)

Yesterday marked something of a milestone for Brighton and Hove: the council voted to abolish its open and democratic multi-party committee system in favour of leader and cabinet model with all decisions being taken by cabinet members (in secret if they wish, as long as they announce them in public one day).

The cabinet will be entirely made up of Tory councillors, even though they couldn't quite scrape together a majority at last year's election.

Incredibly, the bizarre new arrangement was supported by the Labour 'official opposition' - and yesterday we found out why: a grubby deal over cash allowances.

While an increasing number of council tax payers struggle to make ends meet, an unholy alliance of Labour and Tory councillors decided to ignore the recommendation of the council’s Independent Remuneration Panel and pay 37 special allowances to councillors in the coming year.

For no real reason (apart from buying Labour votes of course) the Tory/Labour alliance agreed to fly in the face of the independent advice, and double the bonuses paid to the two deputy Labour leaders (two paid deputies? They've only got 13 seats!) - at a cost of more than £7,000 to the taxpayer.

And even harder to justify (if that's possible) is the alliance's decision to create two new allowances, each of £2,156, for the Labour and Tory members of the local Arts Commission, which meets four times a year. That works out at more than £500 a meeting! Of course it's great that the council has found an extra £4,300 for the arts, but it's a pretty ugly gesture when it's destined to end up in a few councillors pockets. Why not just distribute the money among Brighton’s many struggling arts organisations?

Meanwhile, figures published today put all this in context by showing the extent to which some of the poorest pensioners in Brighton and Hove have got poorer since Labour came to power. Across the city, Council Tax has risen by 134 per cent since 1997 - but pensions have risen much more slowly. In 1997, 34 per cent of an average pensioner's income went on local tax bills, now it's 41 per cent. This worsening pensioner poverty is the context for this cash-grab. Absolutely scandalous.

It really is time to scrap the unfair Council Tax in favour of a system of local government finance based on taxing the increase in land values - one which doesn't view pensioners and the low-paid as open wallets - and replace the state pension with a much higher Citizens Income guarantee pegged to the real cost of living.

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