Residents threaten council tax revolt

SUFFOLK residents today threatened mass revolt if there's another inflation-busting council tax hike next year!The strorm clouds were gathering as the county council started the process of setting its council tax rate for next year – along with a warning that there could be another big increase on the way as the council tries to "improve" services.

SUFFOLK residents today threatened mass revolt if there's another inflation-busting council tax hike next year!

The strorm clouds were gathering as the county council started the process of setting its council tax rate for next year – along with a warning that there could be another big increase on the way as the council tries to "improve" services.

In April households across Suffolk were faced with increases of more than 18 per cent – and now the county has started the process of setting next year's budget.

At present no one is prepared to give any indication of the size of next year's bills – they won't become clear until the government's grants for local councils are set in December.

There are fears in council corridors that the government isn't going to be very generous to councils this year, with the chancellor of the exchequer squeezing their grants as he tries to bring public spending under control.

A government spokeswoman said today she was unable to make any comment on the possible financial settlement – or even when it would be announced.

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Local government minister Nick Raynsford saw some of the problems facing councils in Suffolk when he visited Ipswich last month.

Felixstowe-based Reg Hartles, of the pressure group PACTS (Protest Against Council Taxes in Suffolk), repeated his call for a standstill budget next year.

"They've had year on year increases well over inflation. People cannot afford to pay any more.

"I know it would take a miracle to keep the council tax rise down to the rate of inflation – but we want more than a miracle," he said.

The group has been rallying support across the county, and is now prepared to sit down with councillors and officials to discuss next year's rises – but Mr Hartles had an uncompromising message for County Hall bosses.

"They have to stop spending more money every year. We cannot take any more," he said.

"The council has to cut back – they should be spending money only on essential services not all these luxuries.

"Why do they have to open libraries on Sundays? What does that cost? That's the kind of waste we're seeing."

He did not think people would stomach a further rise.

"Many people have said they won't pay any more than an inflation-related increase next year – any more than that will be totally unacceptable.

"And if they try a double-figure increase again there will be a mass revolt – they won't get the money without dragging everyone through the courts," he said.

The county council is starting a consultation process trying to find what residents want it to do next year.

It has started this process in its About Suffolk leafleted distributed to 331,000 homes across the county at a cost of 8.9p a copy – that's a total cost of £29,459.

One section which caused concern for Mr Hartles was the comment: This year we put up Council Tax by over 18%. We don't want to do that again, but we do want to make sure we continue improving services.

"Why are they looking to improve services? Surely they should be consolidating existing services – 'improving services' is just an excuse to spend more money," he said.

Conservative group deputy leader Peter Aldous was pessimistic about next year's bills.

"At the moment no one has a clue what they will be looking like," he said.

"This time last year the council was predicting a rise of about 11 per cent, but they hadn't seen the government grant changes coming and we all know what happened then.

"This year no one is making any predictions – but the whisper around the corridors is that the government grant is going to be very very tight. That could force more large increases on us."

Mr Aldous said it was vital for leading councillors in the Labour-Liberal Democrat administration to lobby the government now.

"They are their ministers – I know there are some Liberals in the administration, but Labour leads the council – and they really ought to explain to them how badly these rises are going down in Suffolk," he added.

He feared that another big increase could provoke residents into a campaign of non-payment next year.

County Hall officials are arranging a series of roadshows across the county to give people the chance to give them their views on next year's budget.

"If people feel strongly about Sunday library opening, we'd like them to come along to the roadshows to let us know. The council needs to hear what people want in their own communities," said a county hall spokesman.

"After the last increase we know there is a lot of interest in this – we'll be sending out questionnaires and really do want to get feedback from residents."

Deputy council leader and budget spokesman David Rowe said the county was keen to involve the public in its decision-making.

"Next year's budget looks set to be a challenging process but again we are committed to delivering improved services.

"Our budget will be policy led and based on our priorities. We are setting out to achieve a balance between meeting the needs of service users and making sure that the charge to council tax payers is reasonable."

Mr Rowe accepted that this year's rise had been highly unpopular, but people were looking for better services from their county council.

He said efficiency savings – aimed at saving £5 million from the budget – showed the council was keen to improve the way it delivered services.

County Councils, in particular, have been hit by central government changes over recent years – and Mr Rowe insisted that local government inflation rates were much higher than those in the general economy.

He felt it was unrealistic for council tax payers to expect no increase next year.

One area where counties have taken on a much greater role recently is social care.

Initiatives to ease bed-blocking in hospitals have been aimed at moving out patients needing ongoing care into accommodation run by – or just financed by – local authorities.

Counties across the country have also been hit by the increased cost of caring for very old people – more people than ever are living into extreme old age and needing to be cared for by local authorities.

Councils have also been forced to pay staff more as a result of nationally-agreed pay settlements that have been higher than the inflation rate.

Although the government has provided some extra money to cover these increased costs – it has not been enough and the council has been forced to fall back on householders.

It is local residents, through their council tax bills, who offer councils the only chance to make up any deficits.

Business rates are now set by the government which decides how much each council will get from them.

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