Three reforms needed to tackle the crisis in local government finance

Birmingham Town Hall. Image: Very Quiet/Wikipedia Commons.

New research published in the Times on 8 February highlighted the scale of the funding crisis facing many councils across the country, with nine out of ten councils expected to be millions of pounds over budget by the end of the year. This followed the decision that week by Northamptonshire County Council to issue a Section 114 notice, meaning that it will introduce no new spending except on statutory services for vulnerable people – the first such notice issued in nearly 20 years.

In part, the situation in Northamptonshire is a result of poor financial management and political leadership. But this failure – and the struggles that other councils face – also reflects a decade of relentless tightening of local government finances. Many cities have seen cuts of nearly 50 per cent to central government funding since 2010, considerably more than the cuts that other parts of government have faced.

Moreover, it highlights the limitations of a local government funding system dependent on central government for income and for balancing the books, rather than being able to grow their income independently. If the only tool a city has to balance its budget is a knife, then all we’ll see are cuts.

Offering piecemeal bailouts or fiddling around the edges of the system, as the government has done in recent years, is not the answer. For cities to have stable finances and prosperous local economies, they need the tools to raise revenues with taxes that support sustainable economic growth.

So what should the government do to make the local government system stable and sustainable?

1. Revalue and devolve council tax

Regressive both nationally and locally, the failure to revalue council tax since 1992 means that it does not reflect the wide differences in economic gains seen across the country since then. Relative winners are homeowners in the South with more valuable homes and higher salaries, while those in the North where wages and assets have not grown so much carry a disproportionate load. For example, a £1m home in London is taxed to nearly the same amount as a £100k home in Sunderland. As a tax on home values, it fails on its terms.

To address this problem, there should be annual revaluations, and local authorities should have the power to introduce new bands and vary rates freely. This would support new development, and would enable local leaders to address budget issues by raising revenue rather than by simply cutting.


2. Reform the business rates system to make it more responsive to local economic conditions

This is the only tax of its kind in the UK where the amount raised is determined before the rate is decided. As such, even if the number of companies paying rates increases, the amount of business rates raised does not go up.

As our recent briefing on business rates devolution shows, one damaging effect of the current system is that it favours building more floor space in large developments – often in out of town areas – over improving and expanding the value of office space in city centres, where higher knowledge firms often seek to locate.

This has implications for economic disparities across the country. Cities in the North with an already large share of low skilled jobs are incentivised to attract more big new distribution sheds, when they really need to secure more high skilled jobs to grow their economies. Introducing annual revaluations would make the business rates system more reflective of increases in rents, not just increases in floor space. This would sharpen the financial incentives for cities to invest in and support the transport networks, high quality office space, and public realm that high-knowledge firms and workers are looking for.

3. Pooling finance at city region level

In UK cities, people live and work across multiple local authority boundaries. Over 50 per cent of people commute into a different local authority to work.

And different areas play different roles within cities, some more commercial (most often those in the centre) and others more residential (more likely the surrounding areas). This affects the levels of council tax and business rates raised across different authorities within the same city, and creates a divide over where business rates are raised and where the workers contributing to these rates use services.

Pooling at the city region level would help to improve the stability of local finances by diversifying and broadening the tax base. Doing so would also improve how big decisions are made within a city region about where to build commercial or residential space. Under the current system, councils within a city are understandably driven to boost their local tax base through new development. Pooling would help to secure higher absolute levels of council tax or business rates revenue across a city by putting it where it is most needed at that more representative scale.

In the current system, other councils may manage to avoid having to follow the example of Northamptonshire. But without this fundamental reform, we will see more cities cutting down on the activities they fund – which will be bad news for their economies, and for the people living in them.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.