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council tax – how does it work and does it work for us?

May 17, 2011


Whilst changing channels last night, I happened to come across one of the most interesting tv programmes that I have seen recently. Nick Robinson, a face I usually only see in the 10 o’clock news, presented “The Street That Cut Everything“. A social experiment where residents in one street in Preston, Lancashire, were asked to give up council services for six weeks and manage their own. The amount usually paid into council tax was distributed to the community members on a weekly basis after which they could decide to keep it for themselves or pool it for public use. The street lights were turned off, rubbish was no longer collected and the children that usually took the bus to school now had to walk. To make matters even more challenging, the programme makers decided to push the residents a bit further by returning the fridges that had been disposed off illegally, having graffiti sprayed on walls, lamp posts and streets and sending bored youth with loud music to ‘chill’  in the dead-end street. Although the programme could have done without these additional and somewhat unneccessary tests, it did provide some interesting insights into how council tax works and how it works for each of us.

Apart from the decisions to be made about the public services that are available to and of use to everyone (street lighting, rubbish collection), there were even tougher decisions to be made about individualized services. Whilst the community members pulled together in organizing a graffiti clean-up and rubbish collection, there was more controversy about individual requests for taxi money to go to school or college tuition waivers. After the first few weeks, two issues seemed to become very clear for everyone in the experiment: First, the council provides a whole lot of services that we wouldn’t even think of twice. And all that for a limited amount of money. Nick Robinson slashed budgets half-way through the experiment to emulate budget cuts but also because up until then no account had been taken of police or fire brigade services. Second, it became blatantly clear that some community members pay more in tax than they get out in terms of services whilst others pay in less but get out more. Living situation, care needs etc. all determine how much we pay in and get out and might shift the balance from being net-receivers to net-contributors. Although some residents took this as a reality of the system, others were less willing to pay for services for other members that they might not consider to be essential.

Certainly a documentary I can recommend everyone to watch. It shows us about all services provided by our tax money and the many underlying processes and decisisons that need to be made to juggle a community’s multiple needs against limited budgets. And certainly not only relevant for those in the UK – we struggle with very similar questions in our day-to-day work about the design and provision for social protection in less affluent countries. Budgets, needs and power struggles are as much part of the equation there as anywhere else.

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