Why couldn't rise have been lower before

MAYBE Suffolk County Council should change its motto."Guide our Endeavours" gave its name to the new headquarters - but perhaps after this year's council tax discussions "Making the impossible possible" would be a better slogan.

By Paul Geater

MAYBE Suffolk County Council should change its motto.

"Guide our Endeavours" gave its name to the new headquarters - but perhaps after this year's council tax discussions "Making the impossible possible" would be a better slogan.

For months before and after the current level of council tax was set in April householders were told there was nothing that could be done to reduce the increase below 18.5 per cent.

The government had taken money from Suffolk and transferred it to councils in the north of England.

Vital service improvements - such as opening libraries on Sundays - cost money to implement.

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And the council had to spend more on social services after gaps were found in its services when the inspectors called in 2002.

No one in the administration had been ready for the backlash against the 18.5 pc rise.

No one had expected the fury of ordinary people that was reflected in The Evening Star's Cap the Tax campaign.

No one had expected angry residents to join together to form PACTS (Protest Against Council tax in Suffolk).

And no one had expected that council tax in Suffolk, when linked with similar rises in Devon, Hampshire, Sussex, Essex, and Norfolk would provoke a nationwide protest movement culminating in a London rally tomorrow.

The reaction stunned the politicians in county hall as well as Westminster - and now they've done a complete about turn which could leave Suffolk with one of the lowest council tax rises in Britain next April.

But a 4.5 per cent increase in April will still be above the rate of inflation - and it will mean householders will have faced a 59 pc increase in council tax bills from County Hall over the last five years.

How Suffolk is able to produce such a low increase next year is far from clear at present.

No senior members of the administration have been prepared to confirm the 4.5 pc figure although media enquiries have led to the response: "You won't look silly if you publish that figure!"

They have not been prepared to reveal how the figure has been arrived at, although more than one senior figure at county hall has said: "We've been through the organisation like a dose of salts."

They are adamant that no cuts will be made to core services and no one will lose their jobs as a result of next year's budget.

But they say every aspect of the administration had been looked at.

"We have looked at how we do everything to see if economies can be made," a senior manager told the Star.

"We have looked at how supplies are purchased - we are moving over to an electronic system which will be more secure and save money.

"We have looked at many other areas - including staff expenses - and have found many more ways of cutting back."

There had been fears that some services could be vulnerable, but council officials are sure the impact on the public of the cutbacks will be very limited.

"People may notice us working in different ways, but it should not affect the level of service."

However while these comments may sound reassuring, Conservative leader Jeremy Pembroke felt they raised an important issue.

"We have been saying for years that the administration should take a good long look at how it does things.

"Now, at long last, it has done that - but why on earth did they wait until now?

"Why did it take two massive rises and public revolt before they got the message?

"They should do this kind of exercise every year - if they'd done it in 2002 we wouldn't have had to suffer an 18.5 pc rise last April," he said.

WHILE Suffolk is heading for a council tax rise of just 4.5pc - and some councillors are still trying to bring it down even lower - other counties which also suffered massive rises in April are not faring as well.

And they are facing the wrath of Whitehall as local government minister Nick Raynsford today warned that 31 councils were in his sights.

Councils planning rises of more than five pc have been sent letters warning them that capping powers may be invoked - but Suffolk looks set to escape that threat.

The only shire counties in England to suffer higher council tax rises than Suffolk last year were East and West Sussex, which imposed rises of 19.6 pc and 18.6 pc respectively.

They haven't declared their rises for next year - but are expected to come up with increases of between 12 and 15 pc.

These rises are so high, many expect the councils to face the threat of government capping.

In Devon, where council tax rises of 18 pc helped trigger the national council tax protests, bills are expected to go up by fractionally under ten pc next year.

And in Norfolk, which saw an increase of 16 pc last year, council leaders are warning there could be another rise of between nine and ten pc.

Protesters in Norfolk are expected to quote the Suffolk figures to the Tory leaders of their council in an attempt to bring down the percentage increase.

WHY is Suffolk's council tax increase next year likely to be so low?

That's the question many people have been asking since the 4.5pc figure was revealed earlier this week.

Local government experts are clear: "It's because of pressure - partly from the government but mainly from the public and pressure like the Evening Star's Cap the Tax campaign," said one senior council man.

"The politicians in the administration in County Hall were terrified by the response. They thought people would grumble for a day or two and then get on with their lives.

"They didn't expect people to go on marches. They didn't expect front pages about council tax every day in the Star. They didn't expect council tax to become a national issue."

He felt the anger expressed by local people had forced the county to think the unthinkable.

"If there hadn't been this response, I have no doubt things would have continued as they were and we wouldn't have seen the rise being screwed down like this now."

WHO is to blame for last year's council tax rise - and who deserves the credit for keeping it down this year?

Both Suffolk County Council and the government were blamed when it went up by 18.5 pc.

The government claimed it had given Suffolk a reasonable settlement of six pc which should have allowed it to keep council taxes down.

However county councillors said that a change in the funding formula - aimed at shifting money from the affluent south of England to the less-wealthy north - had cost the county about £14 million.

That meant that a rise of about 11 pc became the 18.5 pc rise that caused so much anger.

The council's frustration at this was backed up at the end of last year when the government's Audit Commission said that this switch had pushed up council tax bills across southern England.

However the leaders of the Labour/Liberal Democrat administration accepted that their determination to improve services - including the controversial proposal to open libraries on a Sunday - had put an extra four pc on council tax bills.

Now the bills are set to go up by a lower sum, both the government and county council are keen to take the credit.

The government claims its "generous" local authority increase announced last month - a 5.7 pc increase followed by a further £3 million a few days later - had helped ensure the increase was kept in check.

This settlement prompted prime minister Tony Blair to tell the Star this week that there would be "no excuse" for a high council tax rise in Suffolk this year.

Senior councillors acknowledge that the government financial help has contributed to the low rise - but say their efforts to cut costs were the main reason they've been able to keep it so low.

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