Next month Barnet council-taxpayers will be invited to go to the polls to elect their local council. The size and impact of the council tax will be the major issue at these elections, and the political parties have been hard at work reassuring us that council-tax rises are being kept as low as possible.
Since the last local elections four years ago, the council tax in Barnet has risen by some 32.5 per cent - an average rise over over 8 per cent each year. These tax hikes are way beyond the annual rate of inflation, which is now less than two per cent per annum. The Conservatives, who have been in power throughout this period, argue that the increases are due to extra demands - precepts as they are technically known - made by the London Assembly and various other London-wide public services, such as the Metropolitan Police. In regard to these precepts the Tories argue that they have had no discretion - they must pass on the increases, collect the revenue, and send it to the precepting authorities.
This is true. But it is not the whole truth.
If the Tories had really cared about the impact of these precepts on the council-taxpayers of Barnet they could have made it clear to the precepting authorities that for every one per cent increase in the precept above the headline inflation rate, the overall Barnet increase would be reduced by an identical one per cent - thus putting the onus squarely on the precepting authorities to make sure the overall burden on Barnet council-taxpayers was kept within reasonable bounds.
The Tories have also blamed the Barnet increases on the ever-growing demands made by Whitehall on local authorities. And it is certainly the case that, rather than raise income-tax or lower government expenditure, Chancellor Gordon Brown has resorted to a range of 'stealth taxes' - amongst which is the indirect raising of the council-tax by shifting responsibilities from Whitehall to the town hall.
Again, however, one has to ask: did the Tories fight hard enough for the Barnet council-taxpayers? Rather than raise the council-tax by 24 per cent in 2003 the Tories could have proposed an increase of - say - 4 percent [still well above the inflation rate], admittedly permitting local services to go into temporary crisis but justifiably putting the blame where it really lay, with Gordon Brown and his boss Tony Blair.
Or - of course- rather than impose the 24 per cent increase the Tories could have done the honorable thing and resigned en masse, so forcing Labour into office.
In opposition at Hendon Town Hall the Labour party was quick to condemn the massive increase in 2003, and since then its spokespersons have lost no opportunity in rounding on the Tories for their arrogance and wastefulness. This year Labour proposed a council-tax increase of just one per cent. Labour's deputy leader at Hendon, Councillor Danish Chopra, waxed lyrical about "Tory waste, mismanagement and splits." But the one thing Councillor Chopra - who is my local representative - has refused to do is to tell us how he and his party propose to recoup, for me and my fellow council-taxpayers, the unjustifiable 20 or so extra per cent we were forced to pay in 2003, an increase he has condemned and for which we voters never voted because it was never in any party manifesto.
The one per cent increase Labour now proposes is built on the foundations of the 24 per cent imposed - allegedly against their will - three years ago. Labour ritualistically opposed that increase. But they have built it into their forward plans. Morally, they are as responsible for it as are the Tories.
There seems, in fact, to be an unwritten alliance at our Town Hall between all the political parties - the LibDems included - on this issue.
I shall therefore deliberately abstain in the May elections, and I urge other Barnet voters to join me in this modest but necessary protest.