I have been an elected politician for three years now. I have spent a lot of time in meetings, where people have said a lot of things. In some cases they have said the same things over and over but in many cases they have argued for the Council doing things. In nearly ever case, the focus has been on the benefits of taking the action. The implicit subtext is that this clearly exceeds the cost.

Most politicians would, if pressed, concede that all actions have a reaction, and, in reality there are very few changes that leave everyone better off. The hope is that the costs are low, and spread widely, and will be offset by one or other of the other actions taken which, cumulatively, leave everyone better off.

This is not unreasonable. we discuss many policies which cost very little in financial terms. A grant of £1,000 will cost the average person in the District less than a penny. It seems obvious that the average person would simply never notice such a cost. The gratitude and clear benefits to the recipient are, however, very clear to the grant committee. The argument hardly needs to be made that the award is worthwhile.

From an empathetic point of view, this is the right thing to do. But a quiet voice in my head keeps telling me that the resources that those 100,000 pennies represent have been diverted from what the producers of them would have chosen, to a charity that most of them have never heard of. Maybe if they had spent the time understanding the good work done by the organisers of this charity, they would have come to the same conclusion that we did. By examining the application, the constitution of the charity, the record of good work that it has done, we have saved countless hours of due diligence that could never have been justified if they were each considering dropping just a single penny in a collecting tin.

This is the argument made by Ronald Coase. That the practicalities of atomised decision making, are such that it makes eminent sense to delegate to a small group who can then arrange the joint purchase of services that in the absence of all the frictional forces operating in the real economy would have been impractical to agree.

The District Council collects household waste, and arranges for it to be disposed of. Every household may avail itself of this service. The cost is very modest. Private contractors would probably spring up if this service were not offered by the Council, and householders would, in most cases, sign up with one or other of the private contractors. Although I believe that capitalism is an incredibly efficient mechanism for supplying many goods and services, I acknowledge that it is very unlikely that households would save money.

There are certainly problems with local or central governments providing services. One of the biggest is the difficulty in innovating, especially when consumers no longer have the incentive to adapt their own behaviours to enable more cost effective delivery.

Coase’s Nobel Lecture.

About Steve

You can read some of the material I’ve contributed to the Knebworth Parish News over the last four years here. The menu on the left organises them by date.

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In the penultimate meeting of NHDC for the current civic year, the budget for 201718 was agreed.  Further savings were identified, as well as a substantial programme of capital expenditure. The council faces challenging times ahead as it has to contend with dwindling revenues from the New Homes Bonus and from Business Rates.

The council’s focus is on making North Herts, in all its diversity, a better place for and working.  It aims to do this by working with partners to provide ‘an attractive and safe environment for our residents’. Currently, we are working towards a joint waste collection contract with East Herts District Council. Waste collection is not the most glamorous of activities, but it is the biggest item in the expenditure budget, accounting for 45% of the total!

The council has an objective ‘ To promote sustainable growth within our district to ensure economic and social opportunities exist for our communities…’. The main driver of this is the Local Plan. It also includes a £1m Capital Enhancement Fund, for community halls throughout the District, to be delivered over the next four years. 

The third and final objective is to ‘deliver cost effective and necessary services to our residents’.  Where these services are charged for at the point of use, such as for planning applications, the fees are also prescribed centrally. However, the council does operate a very successful Careline service. This award-winning service helps elderly and infirm residents to continue living at home. NHDC is also about to launch a building regulations inspection service and hopes that this will be a source of income. 

Of course, NHDC does not have a free hand in most of the services it provides. They are so-called ‘statutory services’, prescribed by the national government. In most cases these are free, for example waste collection. Where charges can be made (e.g. planning applications), the rates are set nationally.

One of the more controversial policies recently has been the one which applies to community halls owned by the council. The policy has been to lease these to local groups on a ‘repairing and insuring lease’. This has put some pressure on some local groups who find that it is difficult to adapt to paying for the costs of maintaining their premises. It does, however, put them on an equal footing with groups in parished areas, like Knebworth. Parishes, such as ours, have always had to bear these costs, especially now capital grants for village halls have largely dried up.

So, by now you’re probably wondering how much your council tax is going to go up in April. The NHDC precept for a Band D property will be £216.96 next year, an increase of £5, an increase of 2.4% in cash terms, close to zero in real terms. Not great, but as low as was reasonably achieveable in the circumstances.  (The rest of your Council Tax is made up of contributions to the County Council, the Police and the Parish Council.) For other Council Tax Bands, see the NHDC website, or just wait for your bill to be delivered.

My experience of the Station Pub in Knebworth is not one that makes me want to go back. The pub is cold, noisy and rarely populated by anyone I know. This is a pity, as it’s a very short distance from where I live. A few months ago, word went out that it had been advertised for sale. There were a few discussions about it in the Parish Council, where we decided that we’d better apply for it to be listed as an asset of community value. Planning applications to develop a very high density development of flats have been received for the site across the road, which have so far been refused, but eventually will result in some residential development happening. In spite of the fact that this is not something that anyone who lives in the village want to see built.

On Thursday, heard that the pub had closed its doors, and the staff had been redeployed in other Greene King pubs nearby. A flurry of activity happened, which resulted in:

  • a new Twitter account was set up to tweet the latest news about the pub,
  • a new Facebook being set up that rapidly went from zero to around 600 members by the end of the weekend,
  • a new website being created, which has received hundreds of hits,
  • a mailing list being set up to collect pledges and offers to help with a campaign.

You can see the website here, where you’ll find links to all the aspects of the campaign’s web presence.

What is quite astonishing is how rapidly the residents of Knebworth could be alerted to the closing of the pub and the existence of a campaign to save it. I have always been an advocate of local politicians using social media, usually in the face of extreme skepticism from the assembled company. Although I’d like to think that this example would persuade them of the effectiveness of the web, my experience is that people can be very obdurate in their views.

The Station Pub, Knebworth

I was contacted yesterday, in my capacity as ward councillor, about the closure of the Station Pub. This is the only pub in the village, and, since it is right in the centre, was very visible.

I recommended creating a Facebook Group. I had a meeting, and someone else set up the group.

Today I found that hundreds had already joined, and a further three hundred were queing up to join today.

The rate of joining this group was astonishing. I am now convinced that mailing lists are comprehensively obsoleted by Facebook.

Some people do not use FB, but the ease of adding someone to a group is so great that there is no other medium that can work so quickly. The problem is that this only works when the campaign is something that people are seriously affected by, or at least interested in. A cause that nobody cares about much will go nowhere.