A win for the people


 The Coalition government should be lauded for Friday’s announcement of a plan to permit people to exercise control over inordinate council tax hikes that have increasingly squeezed the budgets of English households across the country. Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles announced his intention to allow people to decide through a referendum process whether to accept or reject council tax increases that exceed the rate of inflation. This is expected to be in place by March of 2012. Under the current system, Whitehall decides when an increase is “excessive” and must be capped. The move is positive for two reasons: it will likely arrest the dramatic increase in such taxes, and will allow people to better control their local governments.

First, the growth of council taxes, which has been unacceptably high, will at long last be controlled by the measure. Council taxes in England have nearly doubled over the last decade; the average council tax per dwelling in the country has increased from £656 in 2000 to nearly £1,200 today. Last year, the Telegraph reported that the increase in council taxes over the preceding decade outpaced inflation by a factor of four. That the referenda, which can be costly to administer, will be funded by the councils themselves will provide significant incentive for councils to make difficult budgetary decisions instead of irresponsibly raising taxes and further burdening families.

Second, the measure puts people back in control of their local governments. The central government is ill suited to make determinations about tax rates in local communities. Whitehall does not have sufficient knowledge of local concerns and cannot make appropriate determinations about which tax increases are “excessive” and which are acceptable. Such control belongs to the people, who know their communities much more intimately than bureaucrats in Westminster. Local government needs to be checked in some fashion, and it is only logical that such a check should come from the people most affected by its decisions.

The recent announcement is a heartening indication that the Coalition government has faith in the ability of communities to manage their own affairs. The referendum plan is a step in the right direction that further empowers the people, and simultaneously forces governments to make the crucial tradeoffs that English families must make everyday.