ANALYSIS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Do Exeter Labour election campaign claims stand up to scrutiny? Coda: Council tax

The last part of our 2022 local elections series is a coda examining Exeter Labour's claim that the city has one of the lowest rates of council tax in the country.

EXETER CITY COUNCIL   LOCAL ELECTIONS   COUNCIL TAX  

Three weeks ago we embarked on a 2022 local elections series aimed at providing a much-needed counterbalance to the mix of cheerleading and churnalism that is often delivered by Exeter’s media when it comes to local politics.

We looked at previous and current election campaign claims made by Exeter Labour, which will have been in control of the city council for ten straight years by election day on 5 May.

This will make it what the Electoral Reform Society calls a “one party council” with “weak electoral accountability” which greatly increases the likelihood of cronyism, corruption and spending decisions which offer poor value for public money.

In part one we focussed on the city’s housing crisis, debunking the party’s claims around housing delivery, publicly-funded developments on council land and the provision of affordable housing, outlining the impact of university expansion on the city’s residential housing stock.

In part two we looked at the city centre and Exeter’s wider economy including its claims about St. Sidwell’s Point, which cost £44 million — more than double its original £19.2 million budget — without kickstarting the wider site redevelopment that was promised.

We also assessed Exeter Labour’s misuse of economic indicators to make unfounded claims about local wages and business vitality, and its misrepresentation of content marketing materials as authoritative sources of information about the city.

In part three we examined the party’s claims about climate crisis leadership, renewable energy, recycling, retrofitting and development standards as well as decisions to scrap council and city decarbonisation goals.

We also assessed last year’s attendance figures for public council meetings as a measure of councillor commitment to their constituents and yesterday published a guide to who’s standing where in the city, wards to watch, what the results might look like and what they might mean.

As last year we’re offering a rolling results service complete with graphical analysis of vote shares and swings as the winners and losers are announced on the night.

Follow us @exeterobserver to stay in the loop and look out for our snap election results analysis on Friday.

Our scrutiny of the party in power concludes on election eve with a coda examining Exeter Labour’s claim that the city has one of the lowest rates of council tax in the country.

It has repeatedly made this claim in its campaign materials and election manifestos for the past seven years. In its 2021 manifesto it pledged this would continue and repeated the claim in its 2022 election campaign leaflets, although tax is not mentioned at all in the party’s 2022-23 manifesto.

When comparing council tax levels across the country it is important not only to distinguish between different types of council but also to consider other factors which may make local authority statutory services more or less expensive to deliver, and council tax bills likely to be correspondingly higher or lower.

There are currently 333 principal local authorities in England of five different types: London boroughs, metropolitan authorities, unitary authorities, district councils and county councils.

Most of the country is divided into two tier areas in which responsibility for council services is split between a district and county council.

The rest are single tier authorities which deliver all council services (except passenger transport in London and metropolitan areas).

Notwithstanding its name, and unlike Plymouth City Council which is a unitary authority, Exeter City Council is a second tier district council which is responsible for a subset of the Exeter public services which are funded by council tax payments.

These include refuse and recycling collection, planning, licensing and environmental health policy and enforcement, leisure services and council tax collection.

Devon County Council is responsible for education, highways, transport and strategic planning, passenger transport, social care and waste management. This is why 75% of the council tax collected by the city council (£1,556 of a band D bill this year) is spent by the county council.

Exeter council tax bills also contribute to the cost of Devon fire and rescue services, which take 5% (£92 this year), and police services, which take 12% (£247 this year). Exeter City Council takes 8% or £170 of a 2022-23 band D bill.

Geographic and demographic variations between councils as well as other factors mean that their public service delivery costs vary widely.

Exeter City Council covers among the smallest council areas in the country at just over 4,700 hectares. It is only just over 4% of the size of West Devon, which at nearly 116,000 hectares is among the country’s largest.

At the same time Exeter’s population density is amongst the highest in the country, and is more than 58 times the density in West Devon.

These factors make many second tier council services much cheaper to deliver in Exeter than West Devon and many other district council areas.

Exeter’s current council tax band D household charge is £2,065.

Is this among the lowest rates in the country? No. Westminster is lowest at £886 and Rutland highest at £2,300, with an average rate of £1,966.

Exeter’s band D charge is also higher than all but one of London’s boroughs (Kingston upon Thames), 38 of 59 unitaries and 24 of 36 metropolitan authorities.

But Rutland is a unitary authority, responsible for all the services provided in Exeter by the city and county council combined, while Westminster is a London borough, responsible for all these services except transport.

If we exclude London boroughs and unitary authorities as well as metropolitan authorities and county councils, among second tier districts in England the highest council tax band D charge is £2,281 in Lewes (with West Devon fourth highest) while the lowest is £1,863 in Basingstoke & Deane.

The charge in Exeter is also above the district average of £2,041.

It is only by restricting the comparison to the small portion of the charge taken by second tier district councils from total household bills in their areas that Exeter can claim to be further down the national charges table.

However, 33 of the other 180 second tier district councils still receive less than Exeter City Council from their portion of their area bills: Breckland is lowest at £105. Exeter City Council’s £170 share of the city’s band D charge is lower than the average of £203 but, as we have seen, Exeter’s small size and high population density means we should expect it to be.

In normative fact-checking terminology Exeter Labour’s election campaign claim is therefore mostly false: it may contain a kernel of truth but leaves out facts which would produce a different conclusion.


 is editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Exeter Observer Limited.

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