16 December 2008

What the hell is a PRECEPT?

Having got over the joy of finding out that Somerton Town Council charges the highest level of 'Precept' in the South Somerset District I thought that it might be useful to consider what exactly is a 'Precept'.

A 'Precept' is a local tax levied by a Parish or Town Council and which is collected on their behalf by the Rating Authority. Somerton Town Council cannot levy this charge directly upon the ratepayer so Somerton Town Council works out how much it wants to spend in the coming year and applies to South Somerset District Council for that amount of money. South Somerset District Council collects a much larger sum through Council Tax and passes a smaller part of this revenue to 'local councils' such as that in Somerton. Those funds are the Precept.

The idea behind the precept is that the funds will be applied locally and will more accurately reflect local needs and desires. However, make no mistake about it, such funds are not 'owned' by Somerton Town Council. These funds are generated by the taxpayer and, in an ideal world, the taxpayer should have some say in how they are spent. And that is where Somerton Town Council deviates from the norms that might be expected in a democracy.

When Somerton Town Council makes an application to South Somerset District Council for Precept funding normally there would be some sort of accurate forward forecast of likely expenditure. For such forecasting to reflect local desires one would expect that Somerton Town Council and/or Somerton's Councillors would take soundings within the community to find out what activities or assets the community wanted to invest in. This is usually called 'local consultation' and seems to be a tradition that Somerton Town Council has abandoned. As usual, it is fair to ask why that might be and the answer lies in the bureaucratic mindset.

Bureaucrats, like Cllr Tony Canvin, like public funds because spending those funds confers power. And everyone knows that bureaucrats don't like to give up their budgets which is why Somerton Town Council's Precept always rises. Everyone knows that whilst some parts of expenditure remain generally constant and predictable (insurance, heating, lighting etc), some items of expenditure are one-offs, like a skate park. However, once a bid is made for a certain level of funding and the funding is obtained, bureaucrats hang onto the funds in next years budget. A bureaucrat never reduces their budget so, in the year after extraordinary expenditure, the good bureaucrat will invent new projects to spend public money on.

And so it is with the bureaucrats within Somerton's Town Council. The leader of Somerton's 'Nanny State Faction', Cllr Tony Canvin, likes to spend public money but doesn't like to spend it as the public might want. Cllr Canvin doesn't believe in 'consultation' because Somerton's community might want something of which Cllr Canvin doesn't approve. So, in recent years, Somerton Town Council has done away with asking how the community want their funds spent in favour of the 'Canvin strategy'. This means that Somerton only finds out what their money is being spent on when the Town Council, aka Tony Canvin, decides that they should know and you only have to look at Tammany Hall to see how the process works.

In early 2006, Somerton Town Council invited various stakeholder groups to undertake a study of what the community would like in a 'community hall'. This group, the Feasibility Study Group, did a lot of research and produced an extensive report which was published in July of 2006. That study should have focussed on the site at Etsome Terrace, purchased in 2002 as the site for a community hall. However, in 2005 Somerton Town Council decided, unilaterally, that the site should be used for "other purposes" and, in so doing, completely undermined the work of the Feasibility Study Group. Thus the Feasibility Study Group produced an extensive report which was rendered irrelevant by Somerton Town Council's decision to sell off the site that the community hall should have occupied.

The group that produced the report was subsequently dissolved leaving Somerton Town Council, under the expert guidance of Cllrs Keenan and Canvin and their chums, to cook up some sort of alternative approach. The results of their labours was revealed in all its glory to be Unit 8 Cary Court, an industrial shed at the furthest edge of the Bancombe Industrial Estate (Proprietor - Anthony Henry Canvin). So maybe the real reason for the purchase was so that District Councillor Canvin can lobby for the adoption of the estate roads because those roads now serve a community hall.

Next time I hope to have some more concrete (excuse the pun) information about Somerton Town Council's budgeting. I hope that it will be as informative as the budget that Chard Town Council make public on their website - but I doubt it. Afterall, that would be called 'transparency' and any good bureaucrat knows to avoid transparency at all costs.

Till next time.


PS The cartoon below dates from 1928 but the headline is more contemporary.