No one likes a council tax rise but sometimes you must take a blow on the chin
PUBLISHED: 06:00 16 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:13 16 November 2017
No one who lived through the firestorm prompted by the 18% council tax rise imposed by Suffolk County Council in 2003 will be in any doubt about how toxic the issue can be.
So it is perhaps not surprising that the county has been so keen to keep council tax low as long as possible – and is only now starting to increase the basic tax for the first time since 2010.
Actually I do find the Tories banging on about this being the first rise for nearly a decade as being a bit disingenuous. They have put it up by 2% and 3% over the last two years. They might have dressed it up as a “social care precept” but the fact is it’s an increase in the county council element on the council tax bill.
What’s the saying about if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck?
Having watched the ins and outs of local council finance, as an observer, for more than 20 years I have been convinced for the last few years that basic council tax at Endeavour House really should start to go up again.
The Labour-led borough council accepted that. The Conservative-led districts across Suffolk accepted that. It’s just that the county council felt its obligation to its own supporters in 2013 (a minority of those who voted in Suffolk) over-rode the economic facts of life.
For that reason, this year’s council tax increase is welcome – but things at Endeavour House would be a lot easier now if the authority had started loosening the council tax purse strings a couple of years ago.
Then again, we are playing with history – the council found itself imprisoned by an injudicious pledge it probably didn’t need to make in 2013 and that it was only able to shake off during last year’s local elections.
Back in 2013 with Ed Miliband’s Labour Party doing okay in the polls and a strengthening UKIP, the Tories decided to pledge to freeze council tax bills for the next four years if they were re-elected.
At the time Local Government secretary Eric Pickles was telling councils they should not put up tax. He offered bonuses if they did not. Everything was clear.
Two years later the Mr Pickles was retired from government with a knighthood and his successors took a very different attitude – suggesting that councils should increase their tax bills to take account of falling government grants.
Suffolk Tories felt bound by a pledge they found increasingly difficult to maintain.
Had they put up the basic council tax then by the 1.99% that the government recommended, we might have escaped some of the cuts that have caused so much angst recently on services like bus subsidies and to the libraries.
It was noticeable that the Tories did not repeat their pledge this year. And it will come as no surprise that they are now preparing to put tax up.
And in all honesty £46 a year for a Band B property (the most numerous in Suffolk) is peanuts. Or a couple of packets of crisps a week if you prefer.
When you think of what your council tax goes towards – roads, rubbish disposal, care for the most vulnerable, the library service, education administration – these really are services that a vital for any society that wants to consider itself civilised.
Of course some people will always resent paying tax, whatever it goes towards.
If you don’t have any children needing to go to school. If you don’t have any elderly relations who need help at home or – God forbid – suffering from Alzheimers and needing residential care. If you don’t ever go to the libraries (still county funded, if managed independently). If you don’t have any children needing professional support. If you don’t use a rural bus or even drive on the county’s roads then you don’t need the county council.
But I’m sure that most of us don’t want to live in an anarchic hell where no one is concerned about anyone apart from themselves and where the financial cost of anything is all that counts.
Most people want to pay as little tax as possible while getting the best possible services available.
Those services have from county councils have been coming under considerable strain over recent years and Suffolk is no exception.
There are fewer rural buses, fewer fire appliances, and fewer council employees to name but a few of the changes.
More council tax rises may have had a marginal affect on some of those changes – but if we want to protect what we have left it is necessary to pay a bit more for the services.