John Street’s Diary September 23

Written By: John Street
Published: September 23, 2011 Last modified: September 22, 2011

The proposed levy would be based on regular assessments of land value, meaning those in areas where house prices have risen paying higher bills than they currently do for council tax. The Lib Dems insist the tax should be unlimited – allowing local authorities to charge as much as they like. However, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, a Tory, has ruled out a council tax revaluation until at least 2015. But when one takes a closer look at those areas most likely to be affected by such a tax the 2015 deadline starts to look a little optimistic. The property website believes it has pinpointed those towns with the greatest number of homes for sale for over £1 million. Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, whose local MP since 1997 has been the current Attorney General Dominic Grieve, has the highest proportion at 47 per cent against 13 per cent of similarly-valued homes on the London market. Other millionaire property hotspots identified in the research included Virginia Water in Surrey – constituency of Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and Hertfordshire’s Much Hadham (Tory MP Oliver Heald) and Radlett (Tory MP James Clappison) where more than a third of all properties for sale had seven-figure asking prices. On a regional level, Surrey contains the most “millionaire towns”, with 10 of the 41 hot spots based there. Hertfordshire is represented six times, while Buckinghamshire is represented five times. Overall, some 3.5 per cent of properties on the British market are valued at more than £1 million, the research shows and some 41 towns across Britain have a higher percentage of their homes for sale over £1 million than London. Whether many of the householders in those areas consider themselves the “squeezed middle”, we have yet to see – but it seems likely that the cut in the 50p rate is more likely to happen before the property tax. l


Last week we heard about deep-seated unease at the Office of National Statistics about the Treasury’s use of advance notice of official statistics. This week, some sleuthing by the Financial Times, diligently seized on by Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham, points to possible evidence of Education Secretary Michael Gove – and his closest advisor – playing fast and loose with freedom of information laws. Mr Gove is no stranger to the FoI Act. In fact, as an editorial executive at News International he would have regularly encountered and, even, availed himself of it. He was, it should be noted, even the line manager of political correspondent Tom Baldwin when he investigated the finances of Tory Party donor Lord Ashcroft. It may well be that Mr Gove, and his aide Dominic Cummings, were merely being scrupulously diligent when they agreed that Mr Cummings would no longer use his official departmental account but instead use his own web-based personal account. That account just happens to be exempt from FoI requests. If Mr Cummings was using his own personal account for party political matters and not official departmental business, then he would be entirely within his rights and in the clear. The Information Commissioner’s Office has confirmed it is looking into the circumstances. But it is not yet, if at all, conducting a formal investigation into the affair. l


Match abandoned. This week there was due to be a hearing sat the Old Bailey in which Scotland Yard sought to compel The Guardian, and its reporter Amelia Hill, to disclose the identity of the person who told her that murder victim Millie Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World. The Met had been  hoping to use Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act  to get holdof documents that would reveal the reporters’ sources for the July 4 article which so dramatically reopened the telephone hacking scandal. It argued this could have compromised Operation Weeting, the 130-officer strong inquiry into telephone tapping formed in January – and so singularly success-free to date. The Met, still smarting from the revelation of its close relationship with News International wanted the attention to go elsewhere. News International’s corporate parent would equally like the matter to go away, hence the £3 million settlement with the Dowlers. Now new Met Commissioner Bernard Horgan Howe – supervising Weeting – has dropped The Guardian case. It’s a good start.