Alex Aiken: Why your local council might be kicking you in the teeth this year

The Government has set councils a little reputation test for 2012. They have been offered a one-off payment to freeze council tax. Surely a no-brainer to accept?

Alex Aiken: Councils are asking themselves if they have banked enough goodwill to allow them to rise tax rates
Alex Aiken: Councils are asking themselves if they have banked enough goodwill to allow them to rise tax rates

Yet, at least seventeen authorities are planning to turn it down; from Green-run Brighton and Hove to Conservative-run Cambridgeshire. They defy Communities Secretary Eric Pickles who says any rise would be an ‘almighty kick in the teeth’ for local residents.

Why they are thinking of doing this goes to the heart of not just how a good reputation can be maintained, but also what you should do with it.

Council Tax is perhaps the most contentious issue a local authority has to deal with. The Government’s offer is for one year; any freeze now will have to be covered by a rise next year.

The Government wants councils to reduce their costs, yet many feel they have cut as far as they can. As Cambridgeshire County Council’s leader Nick Clarke has stated, ‘we have listened to residents who said they would be prepared to pay more to protect services’.

The words ‘protect services’ are key in assuming the majority of residents already value excellent services. Polling by LGinsight/Populus on attitudes to local councils at the end of 2011 show that seven in ten (70%) Britons think their council does a good job.

Key services such as refuse collection (83%), street cleaning (74%) and libraries (68%) are well rated. The most difficult thing for many councils to accept is that only a minority of the public actively dislike them.

Of those that do they probably have a good reason. Half (51%) of British adults are dissatisfied with the quality of road maintenance, three in ten (31%) think their council does not offer good value for money and a third (34%) doesn’t think their council listens to them.

So, the PR advice on this issue has to be based on an assessment of the overall reputation of the authority, and how people will view a tax rise in the context of the story the council is trying to tell.

Councils with higher tax levels, such as Southwark can rate just as highly as authorities with lower council tax, such as Hammersmith & Fulham, if the communications clearly explains what the politicians will do with the money.  It has to be projects of tangible benefit to the community.

Across the country, councils are asking themselves not only if they have enough money to pay for services, but if they have banked enough good will to enable them to cash in some of their reputation, through a tax rise, because they fear that they won’t be able to credibly explain the reasons for the increase.

A council tax rise may be unpopular, but councils that have worked long and hard to engage with residents, delivering excellent services and providing good proactive communications should be in a strong position to defend their reputation. Those that haven’t will literally be kicking themselves in the teeth.

Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council

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