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Could you live without your council’s services?

Piled up bin bags

Did you watch the BBC programme The Street That Cut Everything, where residents in Preston were asked to give up their council services for six weeks? The question is; is your council tax good value for money?

Like many of us (me included) the residents wondered what they were actually getting for their council tax and whether it was good value for money. Sometimes it can feel like you’re paying plenty of cash, but getting very little back.

And with wall-to-wall cutbacks hitting us all, it’s timely to consider which services are absolute must-haves and which we can just about manage without.

Spending your own council tax

Each household taking part in the BBC’s social experiment were given their council tax money back, where they then decided to pool it and base spending decisions on majority rule. As you can imagine, things got a little chaotic as different camps evolved with opposing views on how to spend the cash.

Their world changed quickly and their quality of life went down the (uncleaned) drain. Street lights were turned off, the bins were no longer emptied and all council-run libraries, sports centres and parks were off bounds.

Problems like fly tipping and vandalism were heaped upon the residents to see how they coped – not easily, it turned out. Who knew you couldn’t just go out and scrub graffiti off a lamp-post without a health and safety report and special chemical solutions?

Chaos without your council?

It all got slightly Lord of the Flies after that, with one household hoarding their rubbish on the sofa, people getting up in the middle of the night to clean public toilets and another household of shift-working nurses left to stumble about in the dark because they weren’t allowed to buy a torch to negotiate the pitch-black streets.

Feelings ran high too when one single mum was told by a neighbour she was taking too much out of the kitty after asking for money to replace school transport, dinners and housing benefits. I guess our spending decisions aren’t just about money, they’re about our social values as well.

Thankfully, most showed a real ‘can-do’ attitude, helping out an elderly resident and generally getting stuck in to taking care of business in the neighbourhood.

Cuts could push some over the edge

Over the top this programme may well have been, but there was a serious point made about how much we rely on all sorts of ‘invisible’ council services and whether we’re prepared to pay for them.

I accept council cuts are coming and that some of our services will have to be reduced or go altogether, so it’s great if neighbours can pull together more. But this programme made me worry about the people who are already close to the edge who may then be pushed over it, with the rest of us completely oblivious.

Perhaps what we really need is a wider public debate about how we spend our diminishing resources. What do you think? Which council services could or should we do without if push comes, unfortunately, to shove?


Local government has its faults but public perception of uselessness promoted by elements of the media such as the Daily Mail is out of order.

I hope that this programme prompts others which will show the contribution that dedciated public servants make to our society

Brian says:
8 September 2016

As someone who works in local government, I can confirm that I have seen tens of thousands of pounds of tax payers money literally be wasted by direct management incompetence. I’m no Daily Mail fan by the way.

As well as direct wasting of money by incompetence, they destroy wealth-destruction via “good-gooder” interventionist activities that lack evidence they improve life for their intended audiences, let alone rest of society that pays for them. Correcting “Market failure” is one thing, but most upper tier local authorities spend a lot of money implementing services that are assumed, rather than proven, to meet the intended aims: early intervention is a prime example. However, as political organisations, and organisations charged with statutory obligations, they are also not free to follow “what works”.

It is a misconception that council tax pays for all local services: this is fairly true of district level government but less so of county-level government, which gets almost none of your council tax.

You might work in local government Brian but I think your understanding of Council Tax allocations needs updating. Our 2016-17 Council Tax bill shows the following

County Council – £1,427.42 – 73.24%
Adult Social Care precept – £27.99 – 1.44% [levied by County Council]
Police & Crime Commissioner – £260.26 – 13.35%
District Council – £96.95 – 4.97%
Town Council – £135.80 – 6.97%

Total – £1,948.92

Under 12% of our Council Tax goes to the lowest tiers of local government.

Fat Sam, Glos says:
18 May 2011

Did the programme makers give the residents (who were shipped in, apparently, and don’t actually live there) the FULL amount council’s receive, including what they get from central government.

Whilst I agree with John H above that people should appreciate what we do get for our taxes, including some of the back-end services that we don’t normally see or aren’t as obvious, local authorities could do a lot more in terms of reducing expensive bureaucracy, use collective buying power to force private contractors to be more competitive and also share more back-office services, equipment and resources. Best of all, they could do with removing altogether that attitude to end-of-year budget request: use it or lose it. With that sort of mentality is it any surprise cuts are being made??! Also, does anyone know if a quarter of the street go on sick leave after a few days 🙂

Of course councils are going to be better and more efficient at providing services than an individual street. They have the infrastructure and resources and access to expertise enabling them to use efficiencies of scale. So, from that point, the programme was ludicrous. But at least it made you think.

Finally, the woman who claimed ‘I’ve never received any support from anyone and try and be independent’ made me seethe when it transpired her family was receiving housing benefit, free school meals, free school buses and funding for after school clubs! That did nothing for the public’s perception of single mothers. I know some – and they all receive state help. I don’t mind helping but drop the ‘look at me, look how independent I am’ attitude and be thankful we have a society that, generally, looks after the more vulnerable.

To me it is simple – Councils are normally efficient and usually good value for money – but to try to run a street without the council infrastructure is ludicrous. We’d soon be back to empting the potty out of the window as in the 17th century.

Like fat Sam I agree we should be thankful we have a society that, generally, looks after the more vulnerable.

But whether the Condems will allow the Councils to run effectively is a different question – Sadly I personally doubt if they will – unless the area is predominantly middle class if the disproportionate cuts already made to working class .areas is anything to go by.

Yes we look after the more vulnerable, the problem is that this is then easily open to abuse.

The question really in my mind is this: We cannot live without council services that we pay for, that is understandable, but can we live without our benefits? The answer to me is a very clear “no”, but then when you have a state that provides everything for you and for the most time wants to think for you too, you have to wonder where it will all end up.

I also think that Poll tax is fairer than council tax. Has anyone seen the tax bands in southern england? These need to be completely changed according to current situation.

ie in St Albans, the top band is around £300,000, which means that almost everyone in the town has to pay full council tax due to property prices, yet they don’t provide enough recycling services. Compare this to somewhere like Leeds which has many houses in the lower tax bands yet provide way more services than a council who receives way more money.

This is in no way fair, southern councils need to re-evaluate the property tax bands as it seems they are all getting lots of money for seemingly inferior services. The roads sure aren’t any better, the bins aren’t collected more regularly, so why the high prices? Where is the money going?

Fat Sam, Glos says:
19 May 2011

I agree that there are many who abuse the system – the same lazy, workshy souls who complain about foreigners coming into the country and nicking all the jobs! It’s the Sharon Matthews’ mums of this world I can’t take.

No one likes a scrounger and the benefits system shouldn’t encourage it. Unfortunately, we’ve had successive governments that pander to the ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety and ‘Yooman Roits’ brigades which is why we have the ‘best’ welfare state, the ‘best’ prisons and the ‘best’ health service in an age where we can barely afford such luxuries.

I think that it is difficult to assess what services we could without as most people have based their views of what services they expect & the financing of their lives on a history of the services provided. If we went back 150 years the services we could call on would be greatly different. Please don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to take council service back to those days but what I’m trying to say is that it is diificult to be wholly unselfish in our views. Over the last years we have added more publically provided services to the council’s portfolio (a large number less than 50 years ago). Some of these have transferred from central government & who provides these is a slightly different matter. However I believe that some cuts would be possible if we the public could plan in advance for them. In this current economic climate people plan their budgets very carefully & the way we live makes us all more independent rather than acting as a community.

Some services could be replaced by neighbours helping each other. For example a previous conversation referred to green waste disposal & comments about individuals making trips to the tip or with no transport. Surely neighbours could get together to reduce the costs to each other & possibly shift this service from council costs.
I’m not saying this service should be cut or charged for but just as an example of the idea of sharing abilities to allow us to look at council services with a different eye. Are all the services we deem as necessary just necessary because we plan for them to be? We have all, me included, got used to the various services being provided for.

There is an interesting thought on how much councils’ have to spend on insurance against & costs of dealing with compensaataion claims. Councils should not skimp on public safety but do they have to inspect every paving slab everyday (an exaggeration I know) to ensure that no-one falls over an uneven edge. However if such a slab is reported (& does the public report such things?) to the council then they should have a timescale to repair or place warnings about. We should all take responsibility for our own (& other less able peoples’) safety as well.

A[pologies if this sems a bit of a rant but I’m having difficulty trying to put my ides in to words.

Exelgo says:
20 May 2011

I think that one of the most important things that the programe did was to actually show that local authorities are useful and generally perform necessary tasks. Unfortunately many people have a low opinion of local government and their employees (and their “gold plated pensions” etc etc) not through experience but through the more right wing press and the reporting of issues in a simplistic, headline grabbing way.

The reality is most people do take most local authority services for granted, without even wondering who actually provides them, and quite often their only direct contact with the “Town Hall” is when something goes wrong, when they want to make a complaint, or when they are stopped from doing something by the Council – so it is inevitable that many will have a negative perception of local Councils.

It’s true that the programme was somewhat simplistic and designed as entertainment, but it was useful if it made people think about what they actually got for their money, including not only the physical activities such as emptying the bins, but also the management of scarce resources and the deciding of priorities.

The phrasing of the question is wrong – “could you do without your services?” – they’re not yours or mine, they’re ours, shared resources that individuals should look after, and conserve as far as possible. The kind of people shown in “The Street” thinking they could do things themselves more cheaply, are as stupid as all the other people who vote Conservative (oh, sorry, that’s most of England). A (in Scotland). We live in a complex and decaying society, and need to pool our resources to make the best of it.

simon duncan says:
21 May 2011

Our company provides tenders for council procurements & the volume of waste & duplication is shameful. 100 councils have to replace the same piece of equipment by 2012 & yet almost all have a separate procurement process, 80 page PQQ shortlist & 150 page tender document.
All docs have to be drawn up, & compared processed & then each council pays a consultant £20K to £50K to advise them on the process. These are the good ones. Others just say they are flouting EU competitive tender process by inciting an opt out & giving the contract to 1 company with an all inclusive 7 year service contract (at twice the going rate!).
On a national or local level, government does not spend our money wisely. Whether this be aircraft carriers, rail contracts, NHS databases or street lights.
There is not enough money left for front line services to provide for our ever increasing expectations. We expect the state to pays us to have children, educate them till 21, pay for a 20 year retirement, 5 years in a care home & all services & the benefit leeches along the way.
40 years 30% PAYE tax & insurance is not going to balance the books. If you increase taxes then I’ll relocate my business to Eire like Google etc etc to provide a competitive advantage.
Uk plc has to become leaner otherwise the Far East will replace us & there will be be no business left to tax & we can’t pay for essential services in buttons. The end of Western hegemony is happening, This is not a structural 1970’s issue of state controlled monopolies but a new set of go getting Far Eastern economies taking more pieces of the cake leaving us with the crumbs. This will effect everything from US defence budget down to Blackpool bin men.
Its not a political debate but a fact that unless we wake up & smell the coffee that the wastefulness of the public sector and benefit trap system will bankrupt us & then the real austerity will begin. xx

I totally support Exelgo’s comments about the value of services provided by local authorities and their staff. Too many people think we sit around doing nothing all day, etc. etc.
The trouble for me about this programme was it’s purpose. Was it just to show how much is provided by local governments & the choices they have to make when allocating their funds (limited by Central Govt)? Or was there also an element of showing that this govt’s idea of a ‘Big Society’ just won’t work – it certainly didn’t in the programme – not too many people were prepared to give their time, skills, etc free of charge to help others, or at least, not when it came to the crunch.
Consider what Tonib said above

“Some services could be replaced by neighbours helping each other. For example a previous conversation referred to green waste disposal & comments about individuals making trips to the tip or with no transport. Surely neighbours could get together to reduce the costs to each other & possibly shift this service from council costs.”

I think you would find that this might work for a (very) short time, but not as a permanent arrangement. Would YOU be willing & able to work in your local library which has just had its hours reduced? Would YOU be willing & able to provide personal care to every elderly and/or disabled person in your ‘street’? Unpaid of course? I suspect the answer would be you do not have the time or the skills, etc etc and why would you want to work beside people who ARE being paid at least some of the time?

As for the North-South divide, maybe the Liberal Democrats’ idea of a local income tax would even things out more than the poll tax or the council tax. (No, I am not a LibDem supporter!).

The councils have outsourced a lot of their responsibilities and standards have gone down. I have had to comp[lain about,
scalding water in the footbaths at a public swimming pool,
a partially uncovered large concrete cover to a concrete drain,
two unfinished contracts which led to dangerous or pavements unusable by wheelchairs and prams,
4 “look like remains of posts” about 8″ high on footpaths.
2 pavements nearly blocked by side growth,
one uncovered drain on pavement.
Councillors are now paid but they do not even go round their wards to see what is going on.
The Disability Equality Act of 2005 is largely ignored – possibly now that Birmingham council has lost a court case because they ignored it, councils will take notice of it,
It may be that Political Correctness and so called Health and Safety and the removal of personal responsibility have pushed council taxes so high
I strongly recommend that people complain more and local papers and radios publicise the complaints.