Opinion: Don’t Drain Us!

I’m usually the first to moan about the party’s propensity to jump on populist bandwagons. In darker moments I have imagined a press release attacking Galilee’s Labour-controlled council for poor litter collection after the feeding of the five thousand, or poor traffic management at the Sermon on the Mount.

However is there a campaigner alive who can resist a phrase like the “Rain Tax”?

www.dontdrainus.org is a non-partisan campaign site set up to oppose new, deeply unfair surface water charges which may cripple many churches, charities and clubs.

The regulator Ofwat has allowed – or encouraged? – water companies to charge non-profit-making community buildings at the same rates as commercial businesses, often leading to huge increases in bills. As such groups often don’t use a lot of water, or make any profit, this is hardly fair or green taxation.

Without getting into ‘the heavy stuff’, surely a central strand of modern liberalism is that we are more than atomised individuals, but that our common life together is often best mediated by local, voluntary, citizen lead groups rather than the state?

As society begins to warp, stress and strain under the forces of credit cold turkey, what sort of government allows the little guys and girls to pick up the bill? Of course the money for investment in our water infrastructure has to come from somewhere. Of course water companies have big programmes of environmental improvements.

However there are three reasons why for many groups the “Rain Tax” is part of a perfect storm.

Firstly, community groups often have counter-cyclical finances – charities in particular find that demands for their services increas in a recession, just as donations go down. Introducing the “Rain Tax” just as recession bites seems a really perverse piece of timing.

Secondly, while still anecdotal, everyone I talk to in the sector speaks of the “Olympics effect” making it much harder to get Lottery funding. Any additional pressure on revenue budgets at the moment can be crippling.

Thirdly the effect on morale can be devastating. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, people perceive that big institutions like banks are being bailed out while the masses are being left to sink. Britain doesn’t quite have an equivalent of the “Wall Street / Main Street” Americanism – though perhaps Chris Huhne’s “we have had a bank bail out, now we need a people bail out” comes closest. To survive what some people are calling “The Storm” we will need a social recapitalisation as well as a financial one. If the millions of volunteers who keep sports clubs, places of worship and local charities going are demoralised or worked to the bone raising extra funds just to stand still it will do no-one any good.

So while remembering that it’s a non partisan campaign I’d ask all Liberal Democrats to have a look at www.dontdrainus.org. I hope you’ll agree that the demands for a review and an investigation into how these charges changes are very modest. Sign the online petitions and do all you can to publicise the campaign. Whether it’s by sharing the link, writing a letter, or a Council motion it’s a worthwhile cause.

* David Morton is a Lib Dem member in Leeds.

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