Pressure mounts as council tax soars

KEEP up the pressure – that was the message today to Suffolk's council tax protesters as the government showed the first sign of buckling under the force of homeowner rage.

KEEP up the pressure – that was the message today to Suffolk's council tax protesters as the government showed the first sign of buckling under the force of homeowner rage.

Ministers at last seem to be getting the message that enough is enough as independent protest groups spring up across the country.

In Devon there are fears of riots in the streets as pensioners vow to go to prison rather than pay 18 per cent increases.

And the chairman of the Norfolk Police Authority, Jim Wilson, has written to deputy prime minister John Prescott to warn of the threat of civil disobedience if council tax bills continue to increase.

And the chairman of the Association of Police Authorities, Ruth Henig, has warned Home Secretary David Blunket that the government needs to give more funds to forces across the country.

Her warning comes as the Suffolk Police Authority repeated its warning that it could have to put up council taxes substantially next year if predictions of a tight settlement from the government prove accurate.

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Dire warnings like this have raised the spectre of the poll tax riots of 1989 and 1990, which helped bring an end to Margaret Thatcher's premiership.

In Suffolk the PACTS (Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk) pressure group has been collecting signatures for a petition against further council tax rises.

It has taken its campaign to town centres across the county – but all the protests have been peaceful.

However the growing anger of people across the country joining protest groups has attracted attention at Westminster.

Local government minister Nick Raynsford spent the weekend talking about future council tax bills.

And he accepted that the current level of council tax had reached the "limit of acceptability" following this year's rises.

It was not just in Suffolk that council taxpayers suffered massive rises.

In Sussex council tax rates have increased even more – by as high as 23.6 per cent in Eastbourne and 21.9 per cent in Mid Sussex.

Devon County Council increased its bills by 18 per cent, but many of the largest rises in the country were in London boroughs.

However some of these rises were not as large in real terms as they seemed in percentages.

Council tax payers in Tory flagship boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster saw their bills increase by 45 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

However the actual council tax bill for a Band D property increased to only £580 and £570. In Ipswich – which has one of the highest council tax rates in the country – a band D property's council tax bill is £1,256 a year.

Mr Raynsford said the government was taking notice of the complaints from across the country: "We have quite a lot of evidence that illustrates that the council tax is very near the limit of acceptability in a number of areas.

"The increases in the last two or three years have really taxed the patience of a lot of people.

"They have been very substantial increases and we have to look at options for change including the possibility of finding other sources of revenue," Mr Raynsford said. The minister hinted that the government could look at increasing the amount charged to local businesses.

But he also warned that it would look hard at capping any councils which attempted to introduce massive council tax rises next year.

Reg Hartles of PACTS was heartened to hear that the government was noticing the anger in the country.

"It is good if they are starting to realise just how angry people are about this – more and more people are joining the campaign.

"So far we've got about 4,000 signatures of people calling for no increase next year people are feeling very angry about it."

And Mr Hartles felt now was the time to apply more pressure. "If the government is saying it is starting to listen on this issue, now is the time to keep pushing them.

"I knew they would have to listen and hopefully they will act now – but we can't relax," he said.

The new Local Government Act passed last week can be used by councils to give discounts for pensioners.

This is being considered by Kent County Council.

However many councillors and MPs are reluctant to go down that path – warning that pensioners cannot be seen as a single group.

Ipswich MP Chris Mole, a former leader of Suffolk County Council, said: "It's very tempting, and all too easy to think of pensioners as a single homogenous group – but they're not.

"There's the Maggie Thatcher question. Should she get a discount on things like this? She's a multi-millionaire. It's a fallacy to think that all pensioners are strapped for cash.

"Is it right for people who may have a substantial private pension to be subsidised by young families for whom money is very tight?"