The History of STAG

Peter Webb, the chairman and co-founder of STAG recounts the STAG story

Now seen in 2016 as a personal journey

 1.    STAG, Surrey Tax Action Group,  was born in early 2003 when local council tax increased by 19%. It was at art class that Peter Jelffs, waving his demand angrily, said “have you seen this ?” I had but only to the point of being fearful for my bank balance. We agreed that ‘something must be done’, but, in Cpl Jones mode, what ?

2 As will be seen from what follows the above original trigger led over time to growing realisation of the backwardness and ripeness for reform of political and hence administrative government and this became the driver of activity. (See also the Home page)

WHERE IT ALL STARTED

3.    I think it was the experience of losing a planning application and appeal in the early 1990s that first fired my sensitivity to things governmental. The application was supported by my local councillor and had no vices but was voted down on political Party lines with accompanying ‘speeches’ of a disgraceful kind. Then as one emerged from career and parenthood and so on and looked around there was this institution called government with behaviour called politics for running the country which didn’t seem right at all. Unless for example one had been personally involved in contract negotiation with a Department, as I had, there was only sometimes a doorstep visit around election time to make one feel in any way connected or consulted as a stakeholder. There was one exception to that when a government Annual Report was produced for 1999-2000 with tax and spend pie-charts – for one year only!

4.    Pundits and commentators were saying what I felt about such as bureaucracy. Quotes from newspapers by politicians and others could have been dated at any time because nothing had changed except perhaps for the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

5.    I felt the urge to be ‘disgusted of Guildford’ (that’s where I first ‘met’  Steve Bowers, ‘disgusted of Rudgwick’) and to engage with my MP. I recall in 1994 getting a letter complaining about bureaucracy into PM John Major via my then MP now Lord Howell which ended with the suggestion that Whitehall civil servants be rendered idle by set-aside as in farming.

6.    My personal professional financial forensic streak and industrial background of systems and methods took me into the reform debate where I found that, for local government, from the Layfield enquiry in 1976 up to the present day nothing much had changed. Layfield it was who opined that accountability meant feeling the pain of paying (tax). That in turn led to the perpetual tension in political minds between the need to raise revenue from, say, income tax and property tax, and the desire to make local tax feel like a price, a hybrid and nonsensically so given mixed revenue sources. And like a hybrid it fails on both counts: it doesn't cover the cost of the services and penalises the cash poor.

7.    In 1999 we moved house from Shalford in the Guildford constituency downsizing to Farncombe in the SW Surrey Constituency. Correspondence with my new MP Rt  Hon Virginia Bottomley produced  agreement (but no action). Letters typically complained, challenged or recommended. This was met with anodyne responses thanking for ‘polite’ interest and patronisingly for “taking the trouble to write” when angry intent was the motivator.

8.    In September 2000 a Green Paper  ‘Modernising Local Government Finance’ was published. In his foreword the Deputy PM said: “Our local government finance system is complex. Few people make the effort to understand it. Fewer still succeed.” “In considering how to reform it we need advice….including the views of those who use and pay”. Embodied proposals referred to grants, borrowing, council tax and business rates. The next stage after consultation was to be a White Paper.

9.    On 13th November I sent in a submission (/STAG/DETRConsult2), copied to Virginia Bottomley, Christine Pointer Chief Executive of Waverley Borough Council, Nick Skellett Leader Surrey County Council, and others, under headings and concluding with Thomas Jefferson’s in bold “I know no safe depository of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

10. The White Paper ‘Strong Local Leadership, Quality Public Services’ was published on 11th December 2001,by the Office of the Labour Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott  but its only achieved purpose was to provide for ministerial subjectivity in grant redistribution. Clearly that principle had been introduced into grant formula calculation which led to the outrage that followed the 2003-04 council tax increases.

11. Minister Nick Raynsford’s Balance of Funding review followed in January 2003 which as its name implies was to consider whether the ‘balance’  was right between central government grants (c75%) and council tax (varying from 40% to 15% but averaging 25%). Business rates are linked to the inflation index and are sent to central government to re-distribute. I made brief direct contact with members of the Group and got a response of sorts from members Lucy Neville-Rolfe,  a Group Director of Tesco, and Steve Freer, Chief Executive of CIPFA. Professor Elizabeth Meehan, Director of the Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research, Queen’s University, Belfast,  said that she would circulate a copy to all members. I also addressed others and  sent a copy of my submission to Shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin who said (January 2004) “ I have noted your comments and will certainly feed them into future discussions.” There was at the time an Audit Commission reference to a flawed system (of distribution, but not apparently council tax this having been picked up by Sir Paul Beresford MP Mole Valley, sitting on the local government Select Committee). I see I also wrote to the  Shadow on local government finance on 16th March 2004, one David Cameron. The Review continued into 2004 but I recall no conclusion that made any difference except to await the Lyons Inquiry.

THE SURREY TAX ACTION GROUP- STAG

12. We were at this time in close liaison with Christine Melsom’s Isitfair campaign. Independently I submitted on 15th September 2003 (STAG/BoFsubmit). I appeared with Isitfair  before the ‘Bennett’ (Local Government Select Committee).

13. We, as STAG,  believed that council tax was a local issue and councillors must be strongly asked to explain. A 'letter of the week' in the local paper brought support and local village meetings were held. High Street protesting and recruiting took place. At the peak we listed 400 supporters in South West Surrey, on a new-fangled spreadsheet. A Committee was formed and bank account opened. The Internet produced contact with others outside Surrey.  We discovered that we were not alone. Christine Melsom of Isitfair was out there and would soon lead us into Trafalgar Square making a fighting speech. The people who became the TPA were there too.

14. Local recruitment and thought focussed on the council tax invoice. On 28th March a Letter of the Week was published in the Surrey Advertiser ‘Tax Rise is a Challenge We Cannot Ignore’ and included: “Government in Surrey costs well in excess of 1bn. To pay for this our council tax, to be increased by 20%, is collected by our local councils who take about 25%. This has added to it something like twice as much again from our VAT, Income Tax and so on, and business rates, which is ‘granted’ back by central government”. SCC emerged as the Big Spender.

15. We raised all and any issues in the local press or in letters and emails to councillors. At the outset I met at length with certain local government people to hear their point of view and advice. One such was my then County Councillor Chris Slyfield (long concerned about the pensions time-bomb) who later became one of us. One result was encouragement to attend County local meetings in the Boroughs. The first half hour is open to questions without notice in front of the press.

16. It wasn’t long before brains kicked in and we realised that the whole local funding system is flawed. Council tax effectively a centrally controlled property based wealth tax, and councillors could and did claim ‘not my fault’.

17. While on holiday in Cornwall in October 2004 I was interviewed and photographed for an appearance in the  Daily Mail. I was also interviewed with TV camera at home for local news. It was around this time Peter Jelffs, the original prime mover, left the Committee believing that we ought to be just a pensioners’ group.

18. But we did gain recognition from the big-spender, On 13th January 2005 a group of us met Surrey County Council Executive at County Hall. Annual invitations for budget consultation in January  followed until we saw no further point in 2010.

19. We had sport when they found themselves £50m short. Councillors were invited before a local “Select Committee” to suggest savings. More than one suggested stopping free biscuits with coffee at meetings. Wow!

20. The Lyons Inquiry set up by the Chancellor and Deputy PM was from July 2004  “at a time of considerable public and political interest in and concern about the funding of local government and council tax in particular…initial terms of reference were to make recommendations on the reform of council tax, to consider the case for shifting the balance of funding, and to conduct analysis of other options for local taxation, including income tax, non domestic (business) rates and other local taxes and charges.” He said that he followed in the footsteps of Sir Frank Layfield (1976) which gives an idea of urgency and progress! He considered “place shaping” – what is local government for in 21st century. He concluded that council tax is “not broken” and many other things but on the settlement between central and local government he said “reforms are needed…”! I had been invited for a one-to-one meeting with Sir Michael and his Assistant in Guildford where I was able to hand over a statement of case.  I obviously gained respect because after he had reported I was invited by his Office to ‘plant’ a question with a broadcaster for his interview.

21. The over-riding impression resulting from that period was one of lack of engagement by individual councillors and politicians and a ‘nothing to do with me guv’  it’s the Labour government fault’ attitude. SCC’s approach was in line with ‘consultation’ thinking but they were as ‘green’ as were we the ‘new kids on the block’. Consultation and question answering did not and does not extend to engagement leading to decisions notwithstanding that we had been given access to budget books and financial plans. There was continuous delay and unresponsiveness in dealings with leadership. Around May 2008 Leader Nick Skellett delegated Cllr Gosling to attend to us. He and his Chief Executive Dr Richard Shaw departed in December 2008.

22. The ‘tax and spend’ atmosphere and tax policy, even if mitigated in part by capping,  generated further council tax increases which have fed further efforts to attack SCC. Topics and their character had been:

a.    The biscuits episode epitomised councillors attitude to ‘savings’ at one time sought of £50m.

b.    SCC initiative for public access in Libraries to county councillors under the banner of “council tax unravelled” could not clarify a crazy system. A submitted but unchallenged exercise suggested that over 10 years CT and total spending had doubled while the council remained broadly unchanged as an entity. £325m had been added to structural cost outcomes  due to activity inflation, Parkinson’s Law, proliferation of senior people on high salaries generating their own infrastructure and doing politically correct and other non-productive and self-indulgent things, all overlaid by councillors and their support staff having wall to wall committee meetings. There was non-productive and self-indulgent activity, eg equality and diversity and risk register ritualisation, contagious and rising senior pay levels.

c.    Early complaints about the state of Surrey Roads, and  refunds by the contractors led to initiatives by myself and Civil Engineer Turlough Bamber. He concluded poor ‘foremanship’ and the ‘strange’ contract all seemed to point to poor management by SCC. From my own past experience in a similar position I had detected that the refunding contractors has engaged in protective pricing in the face of an inept client.The District Auditor was also on the case. John Glanfield, an intrepid roads campaigner, and with Gerald Gilbert alongside, came into our orbit and succeeded in working with the press, and members of staff. He was able to analyse and report on the failures and sit in on current SCC efforts to improve.

d.    Schools funding changed to a direct ring-fenced basis which for a time caused SCC to exclude this activity from financial statements but I argued that such funding is income under management until such time as schools may be floated off. SCC then applied to the new government to enable all schools to become independent academies.

e.    A growing sense of poor management was confirmed in the devastating July 2009  Report (see website page) by Interim Chief Executive Michael Frater CBE appointed in January.

f.     Peter Rauch recorded his analysis of a ‘constitutional’ weakness. This was built into a letter to all Surrey MPs and Eric Pickles MP when Conservative Party Chairman, without result. Surrey CC had been Conservative controlled over that period and developed a reputation for mis-governance, as evidenced and supported by the Frater Report. The new team of councillors, while protesting good intentions, did not convince us that they fully understood how old ‘political management’ behaviours have failed nor the curative way forward to fix the problems at their level. All this, under the guise, mantle and franchise of the Conservative Party and its various political manifestos and financial supporters over time. Surrey MPs appear individually and collectively to stay behind a ‘chinese wall’.  Whereas we can and do have their support in, for example, cases of threatened hospital closure, we cannot look to them for the same support in the case of the actions or inactions of the County and Borough councils. In practice, the electorate are offered a Party Political choice in local elections that does not actually exist. Once elected, a local Councillor is supposedly a power unto himself with no enforceable allegiance to the party political platform he used to secure and pay for his election. In practice whipping occurs. In any case electors are denied factual and performance evidence to inform their voting judgement, for example in time for May/June elections.

g.    A year-old attempt by John Bosten to get £200m refunded from surplus invested cash was brought to a head in March 2010 by consideration of a joint paper to the Audit & Governance Committee. This was unsuccessful but revealing of councillor technical and appreciation inadequacy.

h.    Long campaigning for proper and timely reporting, supported by the Audit Commission, caused SCC on 3rd November 2009 SCC to issue a press release including a quote from me, acknowledging their decision to do a ‘Chairman’s Annual Report’ in future. This materialised in June 2010 and was welcomed but did not deal with the financial performance and state of affairs. This and other governance and value for money points were made to the District Auditor. While the audited accounts have yet to emerge into the daylight the leader’s unwillingness to engage currently and the general character of his sayings prompted aggressive reaction.

i.       “The time has surely come for SCC to deliver some joined-up thinking and action to replace aspirations that would be of dubious value  in the most hypothetical mission statement.” Peter Ruck 24th September 2010.

j.      Suffolk CC plan to save £300m by outsourcing all services. Nicholas Ridley once said councils should have just one annual meeting “to award all the council service contracts to private firms”.

k.    The (Local Government) Select Committee’s consideration in 2006-07 included my submitted evidence (ev111) which could have  led to the conclusion that a return to the drawing board was necessary for local funding method. This was ignored by government.

l.      Just prior to the availability of the SCC 2009-10 draft Annual Accounts it emerged that the LGPS (Local Government Pension Scheme) and firemen’s pension schemes, but excluding the teachers’, were going to show a deficit of £1.239bn. This was publicly reported and attacked by us with its implications for solvency.

23. On file are all the considerable exchanges with MPs, Local Government Association top people and BoF review members etc. up to the end of the Lyons Inquiry and Report around 2006/07 when my attempts to influence the direction of reform and its system aspects came to nothing. However the file shows many reactions to my efforts – but no serious attention or action. After that the only serious attempt was the critique of the Conservative Party Control Shift document which was ignored. There has throughout been the unreasoned ‘emotive’ contradictory discord between ‘central’ and ‘local’ (localisation). Politicians dealing only in ‘empowerment’ refused to see that delegation of responsibility can go hand in hand with retention of control. Hoped for support from the TaxPayers Alliance was not forthcoming.

24. It has been my observation that campaigning is as much a function of the particular passions and interests of those fired-up as it is of subjects for protest, and methods. Undoubtedly my doings are personally driven. A stalwart band of brothers and sisters were there at the outset such as David Shelton and Adrian Clarke. Since then some have moved away and some have come in at local MP or TPA suggestion. Ernie Hughes was instrumental in guiding us in a co-operative line with the County Council and trying to get them to help us say things up the line that they cannot. John Kettle had to leave us but, majored on the ‘numbers’ attack on the County finances. Barry Smith and Angela Mayer were also great people to have in the team for their support and contribution. Others not on the Committee gave welcome feedback and support. Gillian Young from Cranleigh came and spoke feelingly at a meeting with Minister Woolas in 2005 with our two MPs and myself.

25. We added online TPA supporters (totalling 80) in Surrey and good input and own-initiative activists, Peter Rauch of Wonersh, John Bosten of Hinchley Wood in Elmbridge, Gerald Gilbert of Walton Bridge to name but three. Others, often ‘old staggers’ also provide valuable contact, input and shared experiences: Peter Ruck near Dorking in Mole Valley, Kevin Court in Effingham, Edward Huxley and Terry Lyden from the Chertsey Staines Area, Vic Wroth, John Selve, Tim Craig, John Gaff, Gordon Wratten, Neville Shearman and Clive Alabaster. New active incomers were Philip V Hacket MSTA Cfte, Richard Tebboth and Ron Whitehand.

26. At a Committee meeting on the 20th April 2005 were present PGW (Chair), Steve Bowers, Ernie Hughes, Turlough Bamber, Adrian Clarke, Angela Meyer and David Shelton with apologies from John Kettle, and Ian Rogers who was soon to leave, having unsuccessfully tested my willingness to go to prison if necessary. Invited to that meeting for part of the time was Matthew Elliott, Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the TPA. Co-operation was agreed upon.

27. At its 29th Committee meeting on  20th September 2007 Barry Smith was also present. PW had previously circulated “Whither STAG ?” questions and reported on the approach by TPA to go for a local branch. He felt that STAG had gone as far as it could without trying to be a nascent political party while TPA had a broader remit which still included council tax. The impact of Council tax increases in 2003/04 had fallen away. The STAG logo was to remain with its supporter list to maintain the local interface while we became the SW Surrey TPA and invited supporters to join TPA.

28. We became the short-lived Surrey TPA in October 2007. Outspoken ideas embarrassed their need to gain Party political trust. Schism also took place when it became apparent that TPA was not able to accept principles of accountability nor see from experience the practical meaning of Better Government. STAG left the TPA though good personal relations were maintained subject to occasionally provocative messages and technical challenges. I had on an impulse offered to paint Matthew Elliott’s portrait in oils. In due course he came to my home to be presented with the result.

29. At this point, being of an age, I was minded to ‘retire but during a lull and review in 2010 I was encouraged to revitalise and renew STAG activities. We felt we had to confront SCC to get more results, and question relationships in the political dimension, and feel free to propose solutions.

THE ‘A’ TEAM

30. With the strong encouragement of certain supporters STAG set off anew late in 2010. I as chairman was joined by Peter Ruck (Communications Consultant, Dorking), John Glanfield (retired Managing Director and military historian, Guildford), Robin Whitehand (Retired Systems Consultant, Woking), Chris Slyfield (retired businessman and County Councillor, Godalming), Peter Rauch (retired Chartered Accountant and company chairman, Guildford) in an ‘A’ team. It was strongly felt, and strongly advised by Peter Ruck, that we needed a website. My Son Graham created what has been a brilliant site on a Google platform at www.surreytaxaction.org .

31. The main thrust of activity was to attempt to get into dialogue with SCC with a view to substantive results. This eventually fell down when the post-Frater Leader Dr Povey was unable to satisfy us, and yet could not let us into closer contact with officers on matters of operational and financial practice. Dr Povey was replaced ahead of his term by David Hodge. Mentored by Anne Milton MP but after much delay we put an agenda for a meeting which took place on 31st October 2010. Minutes were agreed but the follow-up ran into the ground.

32. Sadly during this whole period the ‘A’ team members left the team but not the supporters list one after the other with the exception of John Glanfield who, as may be seen on this website, remained, specialising in highways matters for a while with the late Gerald Gilbert alongside. Reasons for leaving were unspoken but seemed largely due to the difficulty of combining the styles and beliefs of strong-minded men coupled with frustration at lack of penetration and results from our position outside the Party political sphere. John’s continued interest and loyalty as a friend has been a great pleasure and support. Peter Rauch wanted leadership (from me).

33. Having an interest in the subject and ever-growing conviction I continued, concentrating mainly on governance, method and  accountability. Particular aspects of the issues seem to be being quietly  acted upon (the ‘tectonic’ installation of CEO John Manzoni, and Director General of Spending Julian Kelly morphing to Chief Financial Officer ) and such as ministers addressed where possible with forwarding support from MP Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt.

34. I have been free to speak to SCC whether they like it or not, and revert to ‘big picture’ matters of serious domestic government weakness. There has been dialogue with eminent senior people with an academic or government background. It becomes ever more obvious that the weakness of government can be attributed to a ‘mandarin’ Civil Service being 50 years behind the times and unsuited to the much wider scope of government interventionist remit, the disastrous national financial crisis due in part to a poor political attitude towards good management and financial practice. In 2013 I wrote, by the hand of my MP, to the First Lord of the Treasury “Who will mend UK Government ?” but it was intercepted.

THE HOME STRAIGHT ?

35. In early 2015 I was actively encouraged by an officer  to submit to the House of Commons Select Committee inquiring into Voter Engagement. This terminated at 'registration' leaving unresolved findings of voter dis-satisfaction with the electoral process.

36. Acting alone but with a loyal list of supporters who receive a STAG UPDATE I have steadily increased my ‘appreciation’ of governance issues and conviction that government is unfit for purpose operationally. There is no shortage of people agreeing that government is behind the times without a  financial system as normally understood, is badly motivated by an assumption of perpetual and easy borrowing, and has not engaged with the people who have much to contribute. In sum the institution of government is financially, and managerially, illiterate.

37. Lately the ICAEW (Chartered Accountants) have moved towards public pronouncements on government improvement needs like a modern Ministry of Finance, and proper financial reporting.

38 Actual high level evidence of 'design fault' accounting and financial management causing uncontrolled debt in the eurozone and UK has been brought together for Chancellor Philip Hammond via MP Jeremy Hunt, and the NAO (National Audit Office) (September 2016). This has been taken a step further with a formal open submission to the Public Accounts Committee.

 

Peter Webb, late 2016