Interesting news from the city of Brighton, where the UK’s only Green Party-controlled local council is planning to put the question of a significant council tax increase directly to the people who would have to pay it. At an estimated cost of £100,000, the council plans to hold a referendum to ask citizens to approve a 4.5% council tax increase which is expected to raise £2.5 million per year more than the assumed 2% increase.
Consulting the people directly is entirely the right thing to do, and is actually very much in line with Conservative party policy under the influence of Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary. There is currently a threshold in place requiring local councils to hold a referendum to gain approval from constituents for any council tax increase of above 2%, but this has led to a rash of councils repeatedly skimming just beneath the 2% level year after year, continually cranking up the tax without having to gain the consent of the people. In fact, this has prompted some within the Conservative party to agitate for reducing the referendum threshold to increases in excess of 1.5%, a figure well below the current inflation rate.
Credit must be given to the Green Party for actually having the guts to stand behind their favoured spending plans and asking the local citizenry to sign off on them. I may vehemently degree with some of their specific goals or policies, but I will always respect a party that is willing to go directly to the electorate on an important issue over one that claims to speak for the people without having consulted them.
Of course, the referendum plan was announced with a predictable degree of sanctimony and victimhood from the Greens, as The Guardian reports:
Justifying the move, [Green Party council leader] Kitcat said: “The coalition’s cuts mean we cannot deliver the services we were elected to provide and which our consciences say we should provide. We have no choice but to seek the views of local people on funding these services through a tax increase.
“Westminster’s ideologically driven cuts to local councils are huge and relentless while demand for our services continues to grow. Vulnerable people who depend on our services are being threatened from Westminster like never before.
The Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, ladles it on even thicker:
Bennett said: “As Greens we believe that decisions should be made closest to the people who are affected. Instead of letting Whitehall impose cuts on vulnerable people in Brighton and Hove, this announcement takes the decision to the people.
I do find it slightly ironic that the Green Party should take this opportunity to boast about their supposedly-favoured tactics of localism and direct democracy when it is quite plainly apparent that they only turned to the referendum idea out of desperation once all other avenues to fund their big-spending plans had failed to deliver.
Nonetheless, this is a broadly positive development, and it will be very interesting to see how the people of Brighton vote if the referendum does take place. A referendum would require the support or abstention of the Conservative or Labour parties, as the Greens have only minority control of the council chamber, and I would hope that both parties would gladly consent to letting the people have their say – though this is by no means certain.
The denizens of Brighton are an interesting bunch in terms of their political leanings, having returned Caroline Lucas to Westminster as the only Green MP in Parliament, and so they can hardly be described as a bellwether city or constituency for gauging the national mood. But one thing is readily apparent: if the referendum takes place and it turns out that even left-wing Brighton isn’t willing to put up the money to fund high levels of public spending, then there will be precious little appetite to do so anywhere else.
Which would rather undermine all of the anti-austerity arguments so loudly proclaimed by the left since 2010, wouldn’t it?