“It’s the small things isn’t it,” says Paul, a Hartlepool resident who is rushing across town on a Tuesday afternoon, but stops to chat about the upcoming by-election.
“You don’t see anyone going round and killing off weeds or looking after the town.
“You wouldn’t mind quite as much, but council tax is sky-high, it keeps going up, yet we seem to get less and less for it.”
There are a handful of things that come up again and again in Hartlepool when discussion turns to the upcoming by-election and politics generally.
Jobs, investment in the town, and council tax. And when it comes to the latter, looking at the figures, it’s not hard to see why.
‘A wealth tax’
The people of Hartlepool get one of the worst deals on council tax anywhere in the country. It has the highest council tax to property value ratio in the the UK, and someone in a modest house in one of the town’s less affluent areas still likely pays as much in council tax as someone in a half-million pound London apartment.
Speaking to NationalWorld, Andrew Dixon from Fairer Share, which campaigns for an overhaul of the council tax system, says he felt encouraged when he heard news that there would be a by-election in Hartlepool, as he felt sure the main parties would highlight this major issue.
Dixon’s campaign backs a change to the way property is taxed, tying it to the value of the property, which would have a particularly significant impact in the North of England.
He said: “The constituency in the entire country which would benefit most from our proposed reform is Hartlepool, by an average of £950 per year.
“It’s also the place with the highest council tax burden - the percentage of the property value which is paid in council tax every year - at 1.31 per cent. We think it should be much lower, set at a fixed rate of less than 0.5 per cent.
“For the wealthy in this country, council tax is basically a service charge which is seen as little more than a rounding error, but for hard-working families who are struggling it is essentially a wealth tax which they cannot afford.”
Voters overwhelmingly back reform
Recent polling commissioned by Fairer Share found that 40% of people would consider switching the vote to a party backing a fairer property tax, rising to 49% in ‘red wall’ seats.
More than three-quarters of voters also ranked council tax, investment in local services, supporting business and improving transport in their area as the issues that would most influence their vote.
But as the campaign has progressed and neither of the two main party candidates have given the issue much focus, Dixon says he has been left “completely bewildered” by their unwillingness to engage with the council tax problem.
“We’ve had engagement with MPs from both major parties, particularly in the north of England because this is such a regional issue. But I think it is a complete shambles that they haven’t picked up this issue and run with it.
“The average saving from our proposal in the North-East is £615 per household, which equates to £700 million across the region. That’s a massive tax-saving for the people and parts of the country that need it most.”
A better kind of ‘levelling up’
The impact that significantly reduced council tax bills would have on individual households is obvious, but another aspect of the argument in favour of reform is that it is revenue-neutral in terms of tax take, and for places like Hartlepool it would put money back into the pockets of people, which could then be spent in their area to boost the local economy.
Dixon says this is a much more direct and effective form of levelling up than the approach currently being pursued by government, which relies more on handouts of funding or infrastructure projects being distributed by central government.
Of the established parties involved in the crunch by-election, only the Greens have seriously acknowledged the issue, but one of the local parties has centred a proportional property tax at the heart of its campaign.
‘Hartlepool residents pay similar rates to Westminster residents’
Hilton Dawson, the North East Party’s candidate, says his party has been campaigning on this issue for a long time, highlighting it in four parliamentary campaigns.
He said: “Hartlepool residents pay similar rates to Westminster residents - whose properties are worth up to 1,000 times more. This is an issue which goes way beyond one tax, to the foundations of our society.
“How can we be a ‘United’ Kingdom when people and communities are treated as differently as this? Hartlepool has supplied generations of its children to the defence of the realm in the armed forces. What sort of acknowledgement of their service is being expressed when they are treated so unfairly?
“A Fair Property Tax would benefit everyone in Hartlepool. If people spent that money in the local economy every year the total spending power would be £40 million, an annual amount to transform the local economy through the spending decisions of its own citizens using their own money.”
Referencing the growing support from backbench MPs representing northern seats for both Labour and the Conservatives, Dawson says he’s well placed to lead on this issue should he produce an upset in Thursday’s by-election.
“If I am elected to Parliament I would be well placed to pursue this matter on an all-party basis with the backing of Fairer Share. Given the concern for ‘levelling up’ and for the future of the UK I firmly believe that we could make progress.”
For more coverage from Hartlepool, follow Ethan Shone on Twitter.
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