Friday, April 11, 2008

Charging Creep

Why we love books

Small Government Tyler is a big fan of public libraries. How inconsistent is that.

But the thing is this. In the days before the internet, public libraries made vast amounts of knowledge and kultur freely available to everyone. And somehow, that seemed A Good Thing.

Imagine his surprise then, when his local library recently charged him £22.40p.

It was like this. Researching the dark Reithian origins of the BBC, he'd taken out his maximum allocation of eight books. And for various reasons, he returned them two weeks late, so was required to pay a fine. Fair enough. But unlike days of yore when fines were measured in pence, these days we're talking 20p per item per day. So 20p x 8 x 14 = £22.40p. Clearly his fault, but crumbs!

It set him wondering about what other local authority charges had increased. And how much money they all raise.

The answer is quite startling: over the last ten years, council charges of one kind and another have gone through the roof.

According to the official stats, in 2005-06 (latest year available) the revenue from Sales, Fees and Charges for English local authorities amounted to £11.4bn, excluding rents on council houses. That constituted 8% of their total income.

But wind the clock back ten years, and the picture was rather different. Then, Sales, Fees and Charges raised only £4.4bn, or 6% of total council income.

So in ten years, Sales, Fees and Charges have increased by a cool 157%, compared to a CPI increase of only about 20%.

No wonder Tyler was shocked. In fact, it's libraries and other items under the "Cultural" heading, that have suffered the biggest charging increases of all - up 240%!

This is a prime example of charging creep. A close relative of stealth taxation, charging creep is where your public sector supplier surreptitiously charges ever more for services that were once free - or virtually free - at the point of use.

Or misuse, in the case of unreturned library books.

PS It turns out not everyone is as fastidious as Tyler. Just down the road, "tardy book borrowers in Elmbridge have racked up more than £60,000 in unpaid late fees — enough to buy thousands of new books". Hunt them down and bring them to justice, we say.


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