Rye Town Council, with town hall, silver maces, hats and robes, has no more power than the smallest parish in England. In fact, in the 1970s, it gave away most of the few powers that remained after local government reorganisation. Its income for the next financial year is estimated at £154,909, of which salaries account for £78,762.
The National Audit Office estimated in 2013 that “local authority spending in England accounts for a quarter of total public spending in the UK”. East Sussex and Rother deal with much larger budgets than Rye and in line with other county and district councils, their budgets are capped and they all claim to be cutting back on expenditure.
Is Rye Town Council, now three months away from an election, trying to buck the trend and spend, spend, spend the council tax, on projects that appear on council agenda papers, without prior discussion or publicity in the town?
Two such projects were raised in 2014:
A majority of councillors voted to employ a town steward and spend a further £6,820 on a vehicle, its logo, its housing, a waste licence and the officer’s tools. This has been very helpful to the higher councils, who were supposed to perform these tasks and now get paid for not doing so. They will continue to be paid for not doing so. The generous Rye council taxpayer is paying twice, which I believe is called double taxation.
The historic Town Hall Cottage, adjacent to the town hall, was handed over to Rother with the old Borough housing stock, but valiantly clawed back in the 1970s. Rye still owns the property, but only just. It is let out at market rent to provide an additional income to the council, estimated at £9,260 for the next financial year.
I write “only just”, because the town council has already resolved, in principle, to offer the property for sale to the current tenant on a single market valuation of £258,500. The stated intention is to purchase two or more “housing units” which can be let out as affordable accommodation to a few lucky people, thereby catapulting Rye Town Council into the hitherto unknown world of the social landlord and depriving the rest of the community, permanently, of its asset.
Councillors also voted in December to consider becoming a living wage employer. Good for everyone to receive a proper wage, but I wonder how many poorly paid council taxpayers, with no muscle to demand more for themselves, feel about subbing the lucky few.
On Monday February 9, at the latest council meeting, a resolution was considered to appoint and therefore fund, a self-employed tourism and events officer. I understand that it fell by only two votes, with six councillors absent. What will happen next time with a full turn out?
At the same meeting, councillors voted to take over the ownership of the Millennium Wall (built in 2000, adjacent to the fish and chip restaurant on Strand Quay and much beloved of graffiti artists), apparently disregarding the caveats of their own solicitor as to potential future liabilities. The final legal bill alone may be well over £1,000, future cost unknown.
Add to that another essential item for any self-respecting parish, the purchase of three badges as gifts to past mayors, a snip at a mere £1,050 of public money!
Already neglected by Rother and East Sussex, Rye will have many more calls on its finances in future. Traffic management, the Landgate and the leisure centre, for a start.
Instead of this apparent urge to dispose of public money fast, isn’t it time for a robust debate in the community about Rye’s priorities? With an election ahead isn’t this the right time for the community to decide what it wants and vote accordingly?
Mary Smith is a Rye town councillor