John Marriott

John Marriott

John Marriott

John Marriott is a Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he has represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council since 2001. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.


For many years now governments of all political colours have seen fit to centralise more and more powers to themselves. The result of this has impacted directly on the councils that in the past were the major providers of the kind of services that have improved the lives for generations of our citizens. Today they are a shadow of their former selves, whose lack of influence is clearly reflected in poor turnouts in local elections.

There have been promises to reverse the centralisation of powers and to devolve many of the powers back from where they have been taken over many years. So far, the progress has been painfully slow.

Whatever services that remain the responsibility of local government still have to be paid for. Traditionally the bulk of the funding came from central government grants, based on a formula devised and administered in Whitehall. The rest came from revenue and a smaller contribution from the recipients of those services.

Some of you may remember the dreaded ‘Rates’. In 1989 in Scotland, and in 1990 in England, these were replaced by a charge on each person whose name appeared on the electoral register, called officially the ‘Community Charge’, but forever known as the ‘Poll Tax’, while a uniform business rate was collected locally and but transferred directly to central government to be returned in part in the form of a grant, which covered anything up to two thirds of expenditure.

Well, I’m sure many of you can remember the trouble the Poll Tax caused, particularly in Scotland. Many people tried to avoid paying it by simply not registering to vote. Others took to the streets.

The Tory government, faced with a resurgent Labour Party and probably coming to the end of its natural life, quickly replaced it in 1993 with the Council Tax, which looked very much like the hated Rates, based as it was on domestic property values at the time but still only accounting for around a quarter of council spend.

There has never as yet been a Council Tax revaluation in England so what we currently pay, despite increases over the years, has not actually kept pace with the increase in property prices over that time.

The strains are now really beginning to show. The 2010-2015 Coalition Government used its austerity programme to cut its central grant progressively and used the so call ‘Council Tax Freeze Grant’ to bribe councils not to raise Council Tax.

The result was that a council like Lincolnshire, which accepted the grant, was forced massively to reduce its staff and many of the services it provided, Libraries being just one example, in an attempt to protect so called ‘Front Line Services’, such as Adult Social Care.

The irony is that, had Lincolnshire not accepted the freeze grant over the period of its existence and had raised its part of the Council Tax by the permitted 1.99% annually (around £2 per week on a Band C property), it would have been around £30 million better off!

Now the present government has decided virtually to abolish the central grant by the beginning of the next decade, while offering the sop of allowing councils to retain most, if not all, of the uniform business rate. Already the cracks are getting wider.

Northamptonshire County Council has just issued a ‘Section 114 Notice’ banning all new expenditure, while the UK’s richest county, Surrey, has been hit by a £100 million cash crisis. It’s reckoned that nine out of ten authorities will go over budget this year.

Lincolnshire has just proposed an increase in its take of the Council Tax of just under 5%. Can you imagine the howls from certain quarters if these ‘true blue’ councils had been Labour controlled? Also, in Northampton’s case, the similarity with our own county council is frightening. Could it happen here?

Clearly something has to change and it has got to be how we fund local government if we want it to survive in any meaningful form into the future. Now I know that some people will blame those people we elect to run our local services, as Northamptonshire’s seven Tory MPs have done.

Certainly our councillors do come in all shapes and sizes and abilities; but those few who actually run the show have usually got there on merit. The allowances they are paid, which some claim to be either excessive or indeed unnecessary, are actually extremely modest. I certainly wouldn’t expect anybody to put the time in that many councillors do without any remuneration.

So Local Government Finance is desperately in need of major reform. The Council Tax is clearly no longer fit for purpose.

A revaluation would undoubtedly produce howls of protest, especially where it would penalise those people who, whilst living in large properties, may have a restricted income. Adding a few bands on the top would make little difference.

The only tax worth a damn is one that takes proper account of an individual’s ability to pay and that has got to be some form of Local Income Tax. However, even this would not be the complete answer in places like Lincolnshire where incomes are traditionally lower than in other parts of the country. Some form of grant system would still be required and possibly a small ‘Property Tax’ based on land values.

That’s not to say that financial savings can’t be made. As far as Lincolnshire is concerned, we really do not need a county AND seven district councils.

Similar largely rural areas like Wiltshire, Cornwall and Northumberland, to give just three examples, have posted significant savings by replacing their county and district councils with a unitary authority.

There was talk of a consultation exercise with the public when I was part of the ‘Administration Group’ between 2013 and 2017. What happened to that? However, even Unitary Authorities appear now to be facing tough choices as well.

As Oscar Wilde famously remarked, the cynic is the person, who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

There will undoubtedly be a few of you out there, who fit that bill. However, whether we like it or not, if those of us who can are not prepared to pay more, then the services on which many of us rely could be history.

John Marriott is a Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he has represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council since 2001. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.

Having a secure roof over your head, along things such as having good health and a means of earning your living, has got to be one of the essentials we should all hope to enjoy.

It was certainly something that my family was hoping for at the end of World War Two, which left us living with relatives in the kind of austere world that makes today’s look like a walk in the park.

My home town of Leicester was typical of places up and down a country that, despite a national debt of well over 200% of GDP (compared with around 75% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis) managed to house and rehouse people and families by leading a massive house building programme nationwide.

In 1950 my own parents became the proud occupants of a brand new council house. Over 300,000 homes were built every year during that decade and beyond of which around 250,000 in each of those years were local authority controlled.

Not all admittedly were of superb quality (I’m thinking particularly of some of those infamous concrete tower blocks, erected mainly in the 1960s, that are thankfully no longer around); but most are still providing people with a home to this day. 

Currently around 64% of Britons ‘own’ their own home, down slightly from the figure at the turn of the century; but around 20% higher than in Germany, for example.

At the end of World War Two that figure was around 26%.

With council/social housing to rent now unfairly considered by some to be a stigmatised last resort, there appears still to be the desire on the part of successive governments to encourage more people on to the property owning ladder by their insistence that planning authorities stipulate that each large to medium size development includes a proportion of so called ‘affordable housing’.

The problem is how you define ‘affordable’ and how you can get onto that ladder today if you are of modest means.

They reckon the average age of a first time buyer in London is now around 43 and I wonder how many first time buyers there and elsewhere have actually been helped by the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to get that deposit.

Let’s be honest. Not everybody is capable, for a variety of reasons, of handling a mortgage.

Others just prefer the flexibility of renting. Why should we assume that everyone aspires to own their own home?

One of the arguments of the advocates of the ‘right to buy’ scheme was that many long term tenants had probably bought their properties many times over and that ownership would engender more pride than just a tenancy. There may be a point in this.

Unfortunately, the government’s insistence back in the 1980s that local councils had to use the receipts from the sale of their properties to sitting tenants primarily to service debt meant that, with many of their more desirable properties sold off, their housing stock was reduced and many were forced occasionally to rely on expensive and often unsuitable short term alternatives such as hotels and B&Bs to accommodate potentially homeless people, whom they had a statutory duty to house.

Add to that the fact that many local types of council have now effectively washed their hands of their housing stock by transferring it to Housing Associations and you can see that the ability of local government to react to local need is severely limited. (You could argue the same when it comes to education.)

Before Lady Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ was launched in the 1980s 42% of Britons lived in council controlled homes. Today I believe that figure is around 8%.

In 2016 the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee reported that we needed to build around 300,000 new homes per year for the foreseeable future in this country in order to solve the housing crisis.

Now, I’m no expert on housing but I do know from my recent experience as a member of the Central Lincs Strategic Planning Committee that many people still question the need for us locally to have to build many more houses.

After all, there are currently well over 600,000 empty properties nationwide which also includes those that are classed as second homes.
 
Whether we build loads more new homes or not, price has got to be the key factor.

What I do know is that it was cheaper to buy a house when I started out 50 years ago than it is today, and easier to rent one too.

When I first considered buying a house back in the late 1960s three months of my teacher’s salary would have been enough for a deposit on a brand new home. That is certainly not the case today, unless you happen to be earning well above the average income.

Incidentally, my only regret about going to work abroad between 1970 and 1974 was not buying a house before I left and renting it out in my absence as prices quadrupled in the four years I was away!

When people of my generation did get a foot on the property ladder and if they were prepared to move regularly, what they had was a massive opportunity to make money, at least in terms of the property.

Many people who started out with, say, a modest terrace valued in 1970 at around £6,000 might today be living in a detached property worth anything from £200,000 to £500,000.

If food prices had increased by the same amount as housing over that period, a carton of milk would now cost around £10!

As supply failed massively to keep up with demand over the next few decades, despite a short period of negative equity in the late 1980s, house prices have generally continued to skyrocket.

Indeed many economists still judge the buoyancy of the economy by how much these prices increase year by year. Many people have learned to rely on this particular nest egg for their economic wellbeing.

It’s also an important part of the equation when it comes to their social care.

How often have I heard as a councillor the argument from opponents of this or that scheme that it will have a detrimental effect on the value of their property?

So any attempt to curb or even reduce the price of homes will undoubtedly cause howls of protest from those already safely installed on the property ladder; but surely that may possibly be a consequence of increasing supply to meet demand.

It is more important to give the maximum number of people a secure roof over their heads whether they want to rent or to buy and the answer, in my opinion, is to return responsibility for a much larger amount of housing provision to local councils and allow them to borrow if necessary to finance further construction.

Whilst still the crucial player in the housing market, the private sector should not have it all its own way, particularly those developers currently sitting on large parcels of land on which planning permission has already been granted, just waiting for the prices to rise before making a start. Perhaps the prospect of compulsory purchase might concentrate their minds.

Schemes involving shared equity are fine as long as they don’t allow ‘stair-casing’ and thus prevent a property being bought outright. Offering housing at an ‘affordable’ price aimed at first time buyers without any conditions attached might end up with much of it being bought up by more affluent homeowners with a bit of capital in order to gain extra income from renting it out.

Then there’s the problem of trying to get planning permission in places like Oxford, Cambridge and London, where cheaper houses are desperately needed; but where nimbyism rules.

Nearer to home, three years ago City of Lincoln Council announced a £15 million scheme to build 150 homes by the end of the decade.

This was a step in the right direction that needs to be replicated, if it hasn’t been already, in many other local authorities.

Now that we at last have a Local Plan in Central Lincolnshire Lincoln, West Lindsey and North Kesteven will have the ammunition they need to fight speculative developers who have been trying to sneak plans under the radar for far too long.

Innovative building methods such as prefabrication should be considered as should, for example, the installation of solar panels, where appropriate, as standard.

Many of the ‘prefabs’ erected as temporary accommodation after the last war are amazingly, thanks to refurbishment, still providing excellent accommodation to this day.

Similarly, PRC (pre-reinforced concrete) homes have been the subject of renovation schemes up and down the country, notably in the North Kesteven area in the early 1990s.

It didn’t come cheap but take a look, for example, at North Hykeham’s Shuttleworth estate to see what can be achieved.

I know that not all building innovations have stood the test of time but hopefully lessons have been learned, including from the most recent cladding scandal. Whether they are building a town house or an executive mansion, developers, builders and councils must not be allowed to cut corners.
 
The post war Labour government had the courage to tackle what was a far worse housing crisis, despite massive financial constraints, so what about our Tory government today? As they say; “Where there’s a will….” The days of leaving such matters exclusively to the private sector are surely over.

John Marriott is a Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he has represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council since 2001. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.

If we are really going to make our way in the world when we leave the European Union our new government, amongst the many things on its plate at the moment, has got to address the skills shortage that we have so far failed to correct and which we will ignore at our peril. This is one of the reasons why we have needed to accept levels of immigration which played a crucial role in the decision made in the 2016 referendum.

If there is a curb on foreign nationals in future there are many parts of the country where we lack the home grown workers with the skills to fill the gap as we begin to negotiate the dangerous seas of a post Brexit future.

Our schools need to play their part.

The government’s current response, according to their recent Manifesto, seemed only to wish to create new grammar schools “because that is what parents want”.

However, this proposal has now thankfully been put on the back burner as more important issues come to the fore. The idea of a grammar school in areas of non selection may excite you if your child has what it takes to get into one. However, we in Lincolnshire know that, when you get grammar schools, you also get secondary moderns.

In order to address the skills deficit we need to look again at what students are being offered by schools in particular when, as 14-year-olds, they make their subject choices at the end of Key Stage 3. Large chunks of the curriculum currently offered in most secondary schools are inappropriate, in my opinion, for the intellectual abilities and career aspirations of many youngsters.

There is far more to aim for than just getting a clutch of GCSEs at grades that, until recently, have been grossly inflated, or a degree especially if that degree fails to guarantee you the kind of employment you really desire and leaves you with a large debt.

In 2003 the Labour government set up a Working Group under the leadership of Sir Mike Tomlinson, former OFSTED Chief Inspector of Schools, to look into reforming the syllabus and qualifications for 14 to 19 year olds.

The Tomlinson Report, published in October 2004, proposed, amongst other things, to raise the status of vocational qualifications and to introduce a Diploma that would replace GCSEs, A Levels, BTEC and AVCEs. Crucially, it also laid great emphasis on ensuring that ALL youngsters had basic numeracy and literacy skills. Surely we could all agree to that.

Unfortunately the Labour government rejected most of the proposals as did the one body you would have thought would have supported it, namely the Confederation of British Industry.

Some commentators at the time reckoned that, because its popularity was declining, the Labour government, not wishing to offend the middle class parents it had courted since 1997 and whose continued support it needed to survive, just bottled it. If the new government is serious about reform, it might like to consider dusting off this report as a starting point.

How could we finance such reforms, which, given the resources both human and material required, would not be cheap? If I was forced to make a choice I would frankly rather put extra money here than spend it on abolishing tuition fees and writing off the loans already taken out by students particularly since these controversial fees were increased to £9,000 in 2012.

We have been obsessed for too long with a university education as the be all and end all.

It’s also about time that all employers played their part and helped to establish proper apprenticeship schemes as used to be the case here and is still the case in countries such as Germany, where there is a much closer link between secondary schools, employers and technical colleges.

The so called ‘modern apprenticeships’ first introduced here by the Major government in 1995 are, in my opinion, a poor substitute for the real thing.

From my experience many schools here used to view FE colleges as rivals in the chase to secure student numbers on which central government grants largely depended. I fear that this may still be the case. Schools can do some things better; but so can colleges.

If they aren’t doing it already, it’s about time they worked more closely together. It would help if currently emasculated Local Education Authorities were restored to their former status. I must say that I have more faith in a democratically accountable LEA than in the privatised versions which is what unaccountable academy chains are turning out to be.

Whilst being in favour of keeping tuition fees for universities I would however support the retention of bursaries for students in subjects such as medicine and nursing, for example, but only on condition that successful applicants would agree to work in this country for a specified period, say four years, following qualification where need was greatest before considering working abroad. Failure to do this would mean that they should be legally required to pay back over time the grants they had received as students.

For far too long many of us have collectively accepted that working with your brain alone is far superior to working with your hands.

I’m sorry if this offends the middle classes or those with upward aspirations, but it’s time to elevate the concept of working with your hands AND your brain at least to parity with working with your brain alone.

Our economic future in which manufacturing and construction have got to play a much bigger role is likely to depend upon it, especially if some of those glamorous financial services jobs in the city to which many of our graduates and non graduates aspire and which are probably the reason why we are ‘the world’s fifth largest economy’ might possibly be heading across the Channel.

John Marriott is a Lib Dem county councillor for Hykeham. A former Head of Languages at the North Kesteven School, he has represented Hykeham Forum Division on the Lincolnshire County Council since 2001. From 1987 to 2011 he was a member of the North Hykeham Town Council and also served for 18 years on the North Kesteven District Council, finally standing down in 2007. He has lived in Hykeham since 1977.

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