A 'fascinating and disturbing story'
Plus: Is a huge council tax rise on the way?
Dear readers — welcome to our Monday Briefing, and an especially warm welcome to the dozens of newbies who joined after reading our special investigation about Gurpaal Judge this weekend.
We’ve had a huge response to that story — thanks to everyone who read it and shared it. “Brilliant investigation here and a story that says so much about the broken social safety net in modern Britain,” tweeted top Financial Times journalist Robert Smith, while the Labour Party’s former head of campaigns Hopi Sen called it a “fascinating and disturbing story — which does an incredible job of highlighting a policy issue which I was completely unaware.”
“More brilliant, jaw to the floor reporting by @brumdispatch,” tweeted Rob Kewley, and in the comments under the story, Dispatch reader Gavin said it was “fantastic investigative journalism that gives me a lot of confidence I'm going to be supporting a fantastic publication.” On LinkedIn, Alan Fraser posted: “This is a hugely important story, not just for #supportedhousing in the West Midlands but across the whole country.”
This story has been in the works for months. And it shows the kind of deep investigative work that we are capable of doing here on The Dispatch — reporting that requires a lot of time spent examining public documents, hunting down sources for interviews, and putting all the pieces together. It’s also the kind of work that can drive real change in society by showing people what’s really going on in neglected areas like supported housing.
Now for some big news: Very excitingly, we are launching our memberships on The Dispatch tomorrow! You will be able to become a paying member the moment tomorrow’s edition lands in your inbox. Please get your credit card ready and put your finances in order in preparation for the big day.
This is a huge moment for us — the first sign we will get about how many people are willing to fund this kind of kind of journalism in the West Midlands. Our members will be the very first patrons of a new kind of local media in Birmingham. For just £8 a month (or £6.66 if you pay for a year) they will get four extra editions of The Dispatch every month, plus access to comments under our stories, plus the chance to come to our members’ events.
This week’s weather
☔ Tuesday: Overcast with heavy rainfall. Max 10°C.
🌦️ Wednesday: Breezy, light showers and sunny spells. Max 10°C.
🌬️ Thursday: Strong winds and drizzle. Max 12°C.
🌬️ Friday: Strong winds and drizzle. Max 10°C.
🍃 Weekend: Breezy with showers. Max 9°C.
The big story: Huge council tax rise on the horizon
Top line: Lead commissioner Max Caller says it is likely that Birmingham residents will face at least a 10% rise in council tax.
Context: Birmingham City Council needs to save £300 million over the next two years to address its financial crisis. The local authority issued a Section 114 notice in September, effectively declaring itself bankrupt. £150m worth of cuts have already been announced affecting, among other areas, Children’s Services and Adult and Social Care.
Last year, the council raised tax by 4.99% — the maximum allowed by the government. To raise council tax above 4.99%, local authorities need to hold a referendum or they can write to the government for permission to increase beyond this amount. Birmingham’s council leader John Cotton did this last week.
Caller said in a BBC report that a 5% rise would bring in approximately £20m. For a Band D property, this would mean a £195 increase for the year. Caller told BBC Politics Midlands:
“Most [councils issuing Section 114 notices] were allowed to increase council tax by around 10 percent, apart from Croydon that increased it by 15 percent. But it requires a formal request and support from commissioners.”
Zoom out: The news broke yesterday that Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities, is set to announce a provisional £64 million package for local authorities, plus extra support for social care and housing.
The Tories are said to be concerned local government funding could be a big issue ahead of next year’s widely expected General Election, with nine councils — including Birmingham — announcing Section 114 notices since 2018.
However, the Financial Times pointed out that this provisional increase is lower than last year’s 9.4%.
Birmingham has already revealed plans to plug half of the £300 million gap ahead of an official budget in February. The largest savings will come from the Children and Families directorate which will forego £57 million.
City Operations — covering things like highways, bins, and parks — will lose £29m. All planned cuts can be found on the council’s website.
Redundancies are also expected, despite the fact the council has scrapped the voluntary redundancy scheme it offered to all staff in August because it was too expensive.
The council has also put out a survey to learn from residents which services they least want to be affected by the next round of cuts.
Outdated: Many argue the Council Tax system is badly outdated because it is based on valuations made 30 years ago and hugely benefits local authorities in wealthier areas. Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has described it as “a back-of-a-fag packet alternative to the poll tax dreamed up quickly in the early 1990s.” In Birmingham, the vast majority of homes are in Band A, as this graph shows:
The Local Government Association says that council tax increases are not the long-term solution to the financial challenges facing local government. It adds that increases in council tax raise different amounts of money in different parts of the country and fall short of the sustainable long-term funding that is needed.
In 2021, right-of-centre think tank Onward produced a report for the Conservative Party which shows how disproportionate council tax currently is. London was found to have the lowest per-capita council tax bills in England, despite having the UK’s most expensive housing. The issue was debated in parliament earlier in the year.
The Fairer Share campaign says owners of cheaper homes are being unfairly treated and that a proportional property tax, which reflects the true value of homes, would reform the system. They have proposed a rate of 0.48% property tax to be paid by owners, not tenants.
Bottom line: There is cross-party support for council tax reform in the UK, but Birmingham City Council needs to make savings right now. Max Caller is clear that swift action should be taken to fix the finances, so he is hardly going to wait around for legislative change. Given that other bankrupt councils have had to raise council tax beyond the national limit, we should take Caller at his word that it will likely happen here too.
Photo of the week
This photograph of urban architecture was taken by Mac McCreery, who is pretty certain that the building is 60 Church Street in the city centre.
Brum in Brief
🗣️ Conservative journalist David Atherton received short shrift from Brummie author and ex-Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg when he tweeted a video taken in Sparkhill with a voiceover in Arabic. Atherton said: “This is the Sparkhill area in south east Birmingham.” Begg responded: “I was born and raised in these very streets,” and recounted how in the 1970s and ’80s residents resisted neo-Nazi marches in the area.
❗ Thousands of people in the West Midlands are facing delays to their pension payments due to IT issues. West Midlands Pensions Fund revamped its IT system in July, but has since faced disruption. The BBC reports: “Some fund members whose retirements begin imminently have been warned to expect difficulties.”
🍉 The Big West Midlands march for Palestine took place in Birmingham city centre on Saturday. Protesters are continuing calls for a ceasefire, two months on from the start of the conflict.
♻️ Perry Barr Recycling Centre will reopen on 31 January after a two-year closure, the BBC reports. “The Perry Barr site shut in July 2021 for redevelopment work to increase its recycling capacity and improve facilities, the city council said.”
🏫 Tributes poured in for Sir Tim Brighouse over the weekend to honour the ex-Chief Education Officer for Birmingham’s passing. “He knew how to galvanise the workforce,” one of his friends told the Guardian. “He did it in Birmingham, Oxfordshire, London, and nationally and globally. He was one of the great educators of this century.”
Home of the week
This colourful and modern two-bedroom house in Bearwood is available for £199,000.
🎧 Wolverhampton’s own Sathnam Sanghera has created a BBC podcast telling the story of the humble cup of tea and its relationship with imperialism. Each episode looks at a different moment in the drink’s history to explore how tea has “helped shape life in Britain” and its role in the British Empire and beyond. “It’s weird how tea kept cropping up when I was researching the history of the British Empire and how that history has influenced the modern world,” Sanghera says in episode 1.
📰 The Times has featured the story of how Balsall Heath residents came together to make their homes warmer without spending any money. The Retrofit Balsall Heath project has led 649 homes to benefit from up to £10,000 renovations each in just one year. The grass-roots campaign solved the problem of low uptake for government funding and schemes to retrofit by enlisting neighbours to doorknock and spread the word that vital improvements could be achieved for zero cost to residents.
🕵️ The founder of open-source investigative journalism website Bellingcat has written in the Financial Times arguing for greater education in digital skills to combat the spread of disinformation. Shropshire-born Elliot Higgins is convinced responses need to go beyond state regulation of platforms. “In essence, the grass-roots approach offers a vision of a world where communities are connected by shared values of authenticity and inquiry; where narratives are not just consumed but questioned, analysed and co-created.”
Things to do
🎭 Award-winning BBC musicians and dancers take to the stage at the Town Hall tomorrow night for chaotic comedy play The Lock In ‘Christmas Carol’. 7pm. Tickets £23.
🎶 Celebrated organist Anna Lapwood will lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s annual Choral Christmas event tomorrow and Wednesday. Tickets are running low — get them from £26 here. 7.30pm.
📽️ Watch Christmas favourite Home Alone accompanied by a full orchestra and choir performing the film’s original score by John Williams. Doors open at the Utilita Arena at 6.30pm. Tickets from £36.50.
📽️ Or if puppets are more your thing, watch The Muppet Christmas Carol at the Factory Works in Digbeth. 7.30pm. Tickets from £11.
🎤 Amy Winehouse’s award-winning debut album Frank will be performed from start to finish by her band at the Town Hall. Plus, hits from Back to Black and posthumous work Lioness. 7.30pm. Tickets from £29.50.
🎅 This “silly, fun” Elves Workshop Show Christmas pantomime show in Brierley Hill makes a great outing for readers with young kids. It’s affordable too, with tickets at £5 for kids and £1 for their grown-ups. 4.30pm.