People are willing to pay more for local services but can we monetise goodwill?

Author: Jonathan Werran   |  

(This article first appeared in The Times’ RedBox section on 25 June 2018)

Jeremy Hunt, the health and social care secretary, has more or less set co-ordinates for the trajectory of the next spending review with his cash bonanza win for the NHS. Let debate run wild on how this money is collected, allocated and efficiently spent.

The unpalatable implication for wider public services is that after eight years of austerity the funding taps remain tightly closed. For local government, which has taken the brunt of the blows and carries the unenviable burden of social care, the future seems bleaker still.

But what if there was widespread public acknowledgment and acceptance that something, or someone has to give – for the sake of preserving civic life and social infrastructure?

Localis has waded into this debate with a report entitled Monetising Goodwill and identified there is most definitely a gap between what people are willing to shell out for local services and what they pay now. Our report defines this gap as goodwill.

Extensive polling from YouGov has probed the extent and shape of this gap and considered how it can be monetised. And our analysis shows people are willing to pay more when they know what it is spent on.

The top five public services for which people would pay more per month in council tax were, in rank order: public health, fire, police, adult social care and children’s social care.

As a voluntary one-off levy there were six issues that had majority support: helping older people to live independently for longer; support for local homeless people; improving disability access; repairing potholes; reducing loneliness and reducing anti-social behaviour.

The polling reveals telling regional preferences as to where and how the majority of people who want to pay extra would like to see the money go.

Nearly two-thirds of people in the East Midlands – who were the most eager in the country to pay more to fund local services – would fork out voluntarily to repair potholes and the same proportion would pay more in council tax to improve road maintenance.

Yorkshiremen and women are keener than the national average to pay more to support homeless people and boost Wi-Fi speeds. Down in South East, it seems there is a greater desire than elsewhere to fund the police, while in the North East people have found common cause with Giles Coren in leading the charge to combat the scourge of dog fouling.

Unsurprisingly, people’s political preferences are borne out by their attitudes to taxation. Variations by political allegiance saw Labour voters express themselves more willing to pay extra tax in every service barring road maintenance, where Conservative supporters were as willing to pay extra.

The biggest differences were in the areas of social housing, improved sexual health and support for local homeless people.

To unlock our nation’s spirit of generosity at local level, the best policy answer would be abolition of the clause in the Localism Act setting referendums for “excessive” council tax rises.

Let local elections themselves to be the arbiter. Failing that, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government should set council tax referendum triggers at rates that allow places to set hypothecated taxes and levies more freely – and on issues that reflect local public will.

Jonathan Werran is interim chief executive of the think tank Localis