Issue 141: 2018 02 15: Financing Councils

15 February 2018

Financing Councils

Sponsorship schemes.

By John Watson

The proposal by Nickie Aiken, leader of Westminster Council, to ask those in the most expensive properties to make a voluntary contribution in addition to their council tax is designed to tap into basic human instincts.  Rich people can afford to pay more and no one likes to see others suffering poverty in modern Britain.  Rely then on the generosity of the wealthy, and also on their consciences, to provide more funds.

That is fine as far as it goes, but you cannot help wondering if the buttons being pressed are the right ones.  People are generous to a point and they have social consciences to a point, but it can be a small point when cheques have to be written.  To make the scheme a success, something else needs to be added to the mix, a public recognition of the contribution of participants.

Small theatres in North London tend to fund themselves by circles.  By making an annual contribution you can join the directors’ circle or the members’ circle and the benefits you receive depend on the amount you contribute.  For a small amount you receive notice of forthcoming productions and perhaps free programmes and some preferential booking rights.  Further up the scale you will be entitled to attend particular events and maybe meet the artistic director.  All these are very useful benefits but there is another.  In the case of the most successful schemes, the names of those in the various circles appear in the back of the programme.  A good production at the Almeida this week?  Yes, I contributed my bit to that.  Didn’t you see my name in the artistic director’s circle?  Such is human vanity.  People like to be seen as patrons of the arts and the publication of those lists undoubtedly encourages them to give.  Could Westminster introduce something similar into its scheme?

I forget which of the northern countries publishes everyone’s tax returns.  Alien to the discreet British way of course, but apparently it has sparked something of a competition among the top payers.  Each wants to be seen to be a bigger contributor to the public wealth than the others.  God knows what sort of snobbery it gives rise to (“Move aside you small-paying trash”) but it has made taxpaying a competitive sport.

It would be possible for Westminster to publish the names of those who make additional contributions, but I suspect that British diffidence would make that counterproductive.  The alternative is to follow the example of the theatres and to introduce sponsorship of particular institutions.

Suppose money to run a school was needed.  A sponsorship scheme for some or all of the amount would be launched.  The names of the sponsors would be made public, “headmaster’s circle”, “governors’ circle”, etc, and according to their circle, sponsors would receive presentations on the work being done, the way the money was being used, the progress of the pupils, etc.  That would not involve giving them any sort of control.  Control would remain firmly with the local authority, but if the scheme worked well those who contributed would have a feeling of ownership and giving to something they regarded as important.  Those who believe that the future of the nation depends on the teaching of mathematics might contribute to the cost of a new maths teacher.  Those with an interest in the care of old people might support hospice beds.  In the same way as people with successful careers contribute to projects at their old universities, those who feel that they have been lucky in life could contribute to those who have been less fortunate in a way which they themselves relate to.  It would feel quite different from paying additional council tax but the overall effect on council finances would be the same.

The opportunities for sponsorship would have to be carefully designed.  Inevitably some projects would be more attractive than others.  You would not want to find that the sponsorship was all focused on libraries in middle class areas.  Still, that is probably a question of presentation as much as anything, and provided that the sponsorship replaced money which the council would have to spend anyway, it would not matter too much.  Perhaps then one might create a system where the council tax demand was accompanied by a “menu” of sponsorship schemes designed to attract contributions.

From the point of view of the local authority, money contributed in this way would be less attractive than that raised voluntarily under the Westminster scheme because there would be increased scrutiny by contributors regarding the way in which it was spent.  But that is a good thing as well as a bad one.  One of the criticisms of private education is that it deflects middle class attention from the management of state schools.  A sponsorship scheme would reverse that effect.

There are arguments against, of course.  Isn’t there an element of blackmail in publishing lists?  Is it right that people should be able to buy influence?  Should we pander to peoples’ vanity?  Wouldn’t changes have to be made to the Byzantine government funding rules?  They are all perfectly good points but they have something in common.  They all deal with the position of those providing the funds and those are not the people public services are about.  Look at it from the point of view of the consumers of the services and it doesn’t matter too much where the money comes from.  It is the amount of it which counts.  Viewed from this perspective sponsorship schemes seem worth a try.


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