Chancellor hands out the cash
By Graham DinesPolitical EditorNOBODY can now be left in any doubt that the General Election will be on May 5 next year, following the most generous council tax settlements of the past decade and an upbeat Pre Budget Report which promised more help for pensioners, lone parents, the disabled, working families and savers.
NOBODY can now be left in any doubt that the General Election will be on May 5 next year, following the most generous council tax settlements of the past decade and an upbeat Pre Budget Report which promised more help for pensioners, lone parents, the disabled, working families and savers.
Chancellor Gordon Brown delivered £1bn extra for councils, which allowed Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford to warn authorities that they had to deliver "significantly lower" council tax rises from April.
That date is significant - just weeks before a General Election, the Government does not want an angry Middle England turning on Labour candidates because councils hiked up tax oblivious to the ability of people to pay.
It's unlikely to happen. Both Essex and Suffolk have been given cash boosts of twice the rate of inflation - although the figure is significantly less than the whopping 11.2% given to neighbouring Cambridgeshire.
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It should enable both counties to keep tax rises down to low single figures while not cutting spending on schools, social care, libraries, roads and consumer protection.
Some district authorities which handle the bread and butter issues such as refuse collection, street cleaning, housing and parks have cause to worry. Tiny Forest Heath in West Suffolk and Colchester have been given a miserly 2.5%, Braintree gets just 2.6% and Ipswich 3%.
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For Ipswich - whose new Conservative-Liberal Democrat council has pledged to keep down next year's tax rise to inflation or less - the Government announcement is a bitter blow.
Peter Matthews, the borough's head of finance, said Ipswich had the second lowest rise out of the seven district councils in Suffolk and it was 1% below the average for shire districts in England.
But both Babergh and Tendring councils have plenty to shout about. The Suffolk authority received 6% and Tendring 4.2%.
However, the Chancellor's election gift is said to have upset the rest of Whitehall. Senior civil servants are thought to be furious at the order to cut £512m of spending as part of the deal to avoid council tax rises in the run-up to polling day.
In his Pre-Budget Report, the Chancellor had something for pensioners, lone parents, and the disabled as he announced an increase in the OAPs' winter fuel allowance, an above inflation rise in pension credit, an extension of free nursery care and extensions to maternity and paternity allowances.
Motorists will not have to face an increase in fuel duties in the next 12 months as world oil prices fluctuate affecting the price of petrol.
Yesterday was essentially the day the Chancellor told Labour MPs that it was he who would deliver a historic third election term. As a reward, he's in the wings, waiting for the call for higher office.
And the speech was a rebuff for European Union commissioner Peter Mandelson - a key ally of the Prime Minister - who last week angered Mr Brown with a warning against "exaggerated gloating"' over Labour's economic record.
The Chancellor struck back during his Commons statement. "Inflation is low, unemployment is low, we are growing faster than many other European countries," he told MPs.