Nigel Hastilow asks: Is Mr Blobby lurking?
What a disappointment it’s taken so little time for Andy Street, our recently-elected Mayor of the West Midlands, to become a victim of the local government ‘blob’.
The local government ‘blob’ is like the education ‘blob’ identified by Michael Gove when he was in charge of the country’s schools.
Mr Gove’s ‘blob’ wasn’t so much the 1950s science-fiction film amoeba eating up the world, it was the army of bureaucrats, academics and unions determined to stick to their own agenda whatever he thought.
The local government ‘blob’ acts in the same way. It has its fixed ideas and it faces any financial difficulty by demanding more money from taxpayers.
Just months after coming to office, Mr Street has been eaten by the ‘blob’.
The proof is his plan to impose a £7.5 million ‘precept’ on council taxpayers despite his election pledge to avoid this extra levy if he possibly could.
Mr Street says it’s only a paltry £12 a year for every household in the Black Country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry and so it is. A mere £1 a month.
You might think it’s a small price to pay when we’re getting billions for tram extensions, reclaimed brown-field sites and 5,160 new homes.
But it is, of course, the thin end of the wedge. The Conservative Mayor, elected just before the Jeremy Corbyn bandwagon took off, is supposedly dedicated to improving the regional economy.
That rarely requires higher taxes. And what we can be sure of is that Mr Street’s £7.5m money-grab is just a start.
His plans for the next three years suggest there will be no increase in the Mayor’s precept. But with taxes like this, the only way is up.
Why has he decided raise more money? After all, it’s not as if the West Midlands Combined Authority is starved of cash.
It plans to spend £175.4m next year so the local taxpayers’ contribution would appear to be not much bigger than a drop in the ocean of money Mr Street and his combined authority are swimming around in.
Mr Street’s bid for cash is set out in a report to the authority which has to rubber-stamp this extra tax next month. The report says he set up a committee of ‘experts’ to look at alternative ways of raising money but they concluded any options wouldn’t work soon enough to cover his immediate plans.
So why does he need the money? First off, so that he can cut the contributions paid by the seven local councils that make up the combined authority.
They will enjoy a reduction of £4.5m which, we can be certain, will not be passed back to their local taxpayers.
Mr Street apparently needs the money even though he has underspent this year by £941,000 and despite the fact that he is transferring £4.8m into his ‘reserves’ – a scam used by local authorities across the country so they have a pot of money to use in emergencies (in election years, for instance).
And he plans to spend his money on valuable, worthwhile schemes such as £60,000 for two ‘cultural studies’ and £200,000 for ‘marketing, promotion, stakeholder engagement, lobbying, conferences and other promotional spend’.
Then there’s the £1.8m ‘contribution’ towards the cost of repainting railway trains – or ‘Transport West Midlands rebranding’, as the report puts it.
Nor should we forget the plan – apparently the Mayor’s own, though as it’s been around for years it’s hard to believe it wasn’t foisted on him by the ‘blob’ – to get us all out of our cars and onto bicycles.
So important is this initiative that there are no fewer than 13 chapters in the West Midlands Cycling Charter Action Plan devoted to ‘the principles of design for cycle provision based on best practice’.
The worst of it is that this is all so dispiriting. It is clear the combined authority and the Mayor are just window-dressing set up by bureaucrats to give them cover to carry on doing whatever they want.
Mr Street is even planning to impose a congestion charge on old diesel vehicles – another thin end of a large wedge.
There is some democratic accountability, but not much. Various local councillors sit on the authority board but if one of Mr Street’s rivals had won last year’s election there would be no real difference between what he’s doing and what they would have done.
The ‘blob’ wins every time.
And be warned – today it’s householders the ‘blob’ is going for. Tomorrow it will be businesses.
The combined authority is in talks with the Government over a ‘supplementary business rate’ of two per cent. That would cost employers in the Mayor’s domain an extra £34m a year.
Surely Mr Street, who used to be managing director of John Lewis, will at least recognise that squeezing even more money out of businesses is not the way to create economic growth. Or has Mr Street become Mr Blobby?