31 May 2012
Alex Folkes is the Liberal Democrat Councillor for Launceston Central on Cornwall Council and helped to set up the 'Say No to the Pasty Tax' campaign
There's an old saying that success has many parents but failure is an orphan. In the last few days there have been lots of people claiming credit for the decision by the Government to change their minds on the proposed 'pasty tax'. But, in truth, it was a good old community campaign with all sections of society, not least local councillors, involved.
A bit of background for you. Here in Cornwall the pasty industry is a key sector of our economy. Indeed, it's one of the few successful examples of manufacturing in the Duchy. The proposal to add VAT, according to a professional study, would have resulted in the loss of 300 jobs in the industry, a further 800 in the supply chain and more than £40 million from the Cornish economy each year. And at least one chain which had plans to expand said that the tax would put this on hold.
On the evening of the Budget, I spotted a line in the written papers about equalising VAT on hot food sold in supermarkets – rotisserie chickens were singled out. I had a sneaking suspicion that pasties – traditionally sold hot from the oven in high street bakeries – would also be hit. So I checked with a few people and, early the next morning, the 'Say No to the Pasty Tax' campaign was born.
While MPs are often the easiest for the media to contact, local councillors, I would argue, are best placed to really understand the impact on a local community of Government rule changes. A good local councillor won't simply deal in big numbers but also in the personal stories of those who would be affected. And this proved to be the case with the pasty tax.
We built a multi-levelled campaign:
Crucially, we were aware that the Cornish pasty was not alone. National bakery chain Greggs were running their own campaign and we agreed from the start that the solution had to be right for all baked products – we couldn't play divide and rule.
At one stage a local accountant – the same person who had come up with the figures of the likely impact of the tax – organised a pasty summit with all sectors of the campaign represented.
Interestingly, the 'traditional' route of a council motion was one of the last things we arranged. Cornwall Council debated and passed my motion earlier in May with no one against, but we knew that it would not really move anyone in Whitehall, whereas organisation on the ground was gaining momentum.
There were many local councillors (from different groups) who worked closely with their local bakeries to display campaign materials, collect signatures and feed in the likely impact of the tax change on their community. And when it came to the Falmouth rally there were councillors from three groups there to make speeches to the crowd.
We also used new media to a great extent. I've been blogging and tweeting for a while and made sure I used these means to get the campaign going – as well as the Facebook group. The hashtag #pastytax got picked up by the papers to describe the proposed VAT changes very quickly and was trending for a considerable time. On the Facebook group we encouraged everyone to have their say – even if it was negative. The more people engaged, the more they became convinced.
I'm often told that, as local members, we have the power to alter council services and little more. But the pasty tax campaign goes to show that, together with our communities, councillors can achieve change at almost any level.
6 November 2012