Saturday, 16 April 2011

Fact-Checking Channel 4

I am a big fan of Channel 4 News. It offers a different take on things, with its self-styled 'edgy' analysis. Channel 4 run a FactCheck report that goes 'behind the spin' to 'dig out the truth'. So, it was disappointing to see their stilted analysis of the application of the new Homes Bonus on Friday's 7pm news show (accessible here).

The new Homes Bonus gives local authorities back a share of revenue linked to council tax on the sale of new homes. Coupled with the abolition of the Regional Housing Targets (replaced with community housing plans), the policy gives local people greater control over the pace of development, but provides a carrot (in place of the previous stick) to incentivise the provision of new homes. Channel 4 worked out the blindingly obvious - this will give back more to areas with high house prices. In one small step, it was presented as a policy designed to make the poor subsidise the rich.

Of course, there is a massive shortage of housing - especially affordable housing - in the South East, because of the last government's poor track record. But, the charge that 'leafy Surrey' is being subsidised by inner cities requires a factcheck all of its own.

First, despite paying £5.5bn in revenue to the Treasury, by 2009 Surrey received a third of the national average level of funding for local services, and a quarter of that received by Manchester. (See page 7 of the Hidden Surrey Report ). That left us with some of the worst roads in the country and acute pressure on school places . As reported in the Daily Telegraph, the latest figures from the Department of Communities and Local Government show that Elmbridge residents pay the fourth highest council tax, but get back the third lowest amount of investment measured by central government grant per head (in Surrey). So, Kathy Newman's charge that inner city Salford is 'subsidising' executive homes in Surrey with wisteria running up the walls is factually wrong. The subsidy is overwhelmingly the other way.

Second, the new Homes Bonus just gives residents in Elmbridge a bit more back of the council tax they pay in the first place - whereas Channel 4 infer it comes from general taxation or, worse still, directly from the pockets of the poor. The bonus is linked to council tax on the sale of new homes. But one of the main reasons council tax is so high in Surrey is that local authorities are forced to charge residents more, because so much of the revenue raised here is re-distributed out of the county via Whitehall's funding formula.

I made these basic points half a dozen times on Esher Green, but - surprise, surprise - it was edited out of the clip. Edgy it may have been, but the reporting was selective, inaccurate and partisan. On this one, I'm afraid, Channel 4's Factcheck gets 3/10.


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