Janet Street-Porter: Keep this 'plate tax' firmly off the menu

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The Independent Online

Today, Sir Michael Lyons is hosting a national conference on new ways to fund local government and promote local prosperity as part of his long-running inquiry into the future of local government. Back in July 2004, Sir Michael was asked by Gordon Brown and John Prescott to look at whether council tax should be scrapped and to propose better ways of funding local services.

Since then he's been receiving suggestions and evidence from a variety of sources, and published an interim report at the end of 2005, and another in May of this year. One of the ideas put forward by the Association of London Government (a body representing all the councils in the area) was that there should be a 6 per cent "plate tax" on restaurant meals and a hefty 10 per cent on takeaways, which could go towards funding improvements that would make the city more attractive to tourists. It's been predicted that such a tax might yield about £1.5bn.

At the moment, Sir Michael is still mulling over his recommendations, and is due to make his final report by the end of the year. So far he has said that local government should "place-shape" - an unwieldy phrase which I fervently hope does not signal the literary style of his final opus. He seems very concerned that both private and public sectors should work together to take responsibility for an area and the people who live there. He's said that local councils should work towards prosperity, which includes promoting and encouraging the tourist industry, as well as building and maintaining destinations people will find attractive to visit. Sir Michael is looking into how much the visitors themselves should contribute. But he should ignore any potty ideas about plate tax.

The restaurant business in London is crippled by extortionate rents, high wages, a ludicrous amount of paperwork generated by local councils, and VAT running at 17.5 per cent - all of which contribute to making our capital the most expensive place to eat out in Europe. Every week more and more restaurants close, and many are small businesses unable to keep up with the ludicrous demands on them concerning everything from health and safety to staff hours and conditions. While no one wants to break the law, there has to come a point where you stop killing off a whole part of city life and make the restaurant business something that only faceless chains can operate in.

Having spent some time in San Sebastian this summer, I can think of nowhere more enjoyable to eat out and spend an evening. Contrast that with central London, where you skirt around puddles of urine (not enough public toilets and none at all in some boroughs), dodge the vomit (the legacy of the happy hour) and step over the threshold of a restaurant, only to be slapped with 17.5 per cent VAT and often a 12.5 per cent service charge on top of that. No wonder tourists have not returned to London in the same numbers as before 9/11, and no wonder many Londoners can't afford to eat out.

More importantly, people who live in big cities should not pay a tax to fund tourism - the easiest way to achieve that would be a landing or departure tax at airports. At the moment we pay congestion charges, parking charges and council tax. Replacing council tax with a new raft of taxes, including a plate tax, just doesn't seem like any kind of progress to me. I hope that, in his final report, Sir Michael proposes less taxation to fund local government, rather than more.

Suckered: these stupid bag ladies

One of the most bizarre sights at New York fashion week is not the clothes but the parade of stick-thin women weighed down by quilted, bejewelled handbags the size of binbags. I've never been suckered into thinking my life would be complete if I strapped something costing £795 to my shoulder, but plenty of well-known women are stupid enough to sign up. Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss and Lindsay Lohan can't step outside their front door without making sure they sport yet another new bag. Bag fever is so acute in America that two websites have been set up to allow non-rich plebs to rent couture bags. More than 2,000 women have signed up, and are willing to pay from $15 to $175 a month to rent the hottest offerings from Chloe and Gucci. Page after page of adverts in Vogue feature models with studiously vacant expressions virtually making love to a handbag - is it really better than sex?

* Two unmarried sisters in their eighties are fighting for the same rights as lesbians and gay men, and took their case to the European Court of Human Rights this week. Sybil and Joyce Burden cared for their parents until they died and now look after each other, living in the house they inherited.

But if either of the two women dies, the other will have to pay a considerable sum in inheritance tax, and probably end up having to sell their home. The House of Lords had ruled that siblings who lived together for a considerable period of time should be exempt from the tax, but this was overturned in the Commons during the passage of the Civil Partnership Bill.

While I applaud this legislation, (one of the major achievements of this government) it does seem unbelievably unjust that siblings who cohabit for longer than 20 years should not have the same rights as homosexual couples, and I'm sure that many people in the gay community would agree. Surely it's time for the law to be reassessed.

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