Minister urges council tax freeze

HousesAlmost one fifth of local authorities in England are planning to increase council tax this year, despite the offer of government money if they freeze the charge.

A survey for the Local Government Chronicle found that 65 councils are planning a rise, some 18% of the total who are due to make council tax decisions next month and almost double last year's 35.

Local government minister Brandon Lewis urged councils to think again and find the savings needed to achieve a freeze, which he said would in many cases amount to no more than 0.5% or 0.9% of their budget.

He said it was a "false argument" for local councillors to justify council tax increases on the grounds that the Government support - worth 1% of their budgets - may be withdrawn in future years, leading to a sudden shortfall in funding. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has guaranteed the cash for two years, and councils have no details of their funding beyond that time, he pointed out.

According to the LGC of 198 councils, 126 are freezing the tax, seven intend to cut it and 65 are proposing increases ranging from 1.5% to 7.8%. Only 16 are understood to be planning a rise above the 2% level which could trigger a local referendum, but most of these are low-tax authorities which have been exempted from the referendum rule.

Of those increasing council tax, 33 are Conservative-controlled, 23 are Labour, two Liberal Democrat and the remainder of no overall control.

Mr Lewis told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "It is good news for local residents that we have got almost 150 authorities now signalling that they will have a council tax freeze. There are still some authorities still to make their final decisions and we are making the point to them to look close, look hard and do what they can to freeze the council tax to help their hard-working tax-paying residents."

But the Conservative leader of Canterbury City Council in Kent, John Gilbey, told World at One: "We are proposing an increase of 1.99%. This is a local decision and we have got evidence that in fact people want to maintain services locally."

Mr Pickles has branded councils which bring in rises just under 2% "democracy dodgers", because they will not have to put their proposals to a referendum.

But Mr Gilbey said: "Why should we spend £200,000 on a referendum? That is equivalent to 1.5% of council tax. The Government is not going to pay for referendums across the country and they shouldn't pay for referendums across the country. Each council has got to make its mind up."

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