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Thinking about American and British town councils


There are many villages and towns in the United States where the residents are pretty happy to pay their local taxes. (I refer specifically to towns and villages, not cities.) In these towns local government keeps the roads clean and repaired; the garbage collection is weekly and impeccable; the parks look nice; the fire department is in a high state of emergency preparedness and gloss; the locally-supported hospital is efficient and spotless; the schools are teaching the kids how to read, write, and count and the fundamentals of the US Constitution; and the police are polite and arrive at the double when an accident occurs. What is the reason for this state of affairs?

The town management is professional. Income from taxes and outlays on expenses are itemized down to the last penny. The members of the town council and school board are unpaid citizens who have been elected by their fellow citizens. They sit weekly and approve every expenditure. Tax rates are voted on - sometimes approved and sometimes rejected and reduced - by local citizens. In short, local control makes for local accountability.

This is the way it used to be in Britain. It is a beautiful system developed by British people, but if Elisabeth Beckett's story (see below) is indicative, things have changed.

A basic principle of taxation is that we are supposed to know what it is we are paying for. Unknown items that have never been publicly approved should not be added to council tax bills. But this is exactly what is happening.

Another change is that there appears to be no possibility of questioning the tax. Normally when local councillors were deciding on taxes, or you had a concern about services, you could talk to them, and tell them what you disliked, and since they were your neighbours, they paid attention. When local councillors are handing on tax charges forced on them by the national government, they have no say over them, and neither do you. Nor do you have any control over the quality of local services.

Even worse, Elisabeth has found that either she pays the tax or she will have the book thrown at her and her house may be seized.

If I am correct and the traditional British system is being lost in Britain, what is the reason for the loss?

The answer, clearly, is that local property taxes have become largely another tax gathering mechanism for the central government, and for the European Union, so local people have very little control over how their money is spent.