Council services axe warning

By Ted JeorySWEEPING cuts in services could be used instead of a huge hike in Council Tax bills to help a cash-strapped local authority balance its books.

By Ted Jeory

SWEEPING cuts in services could be used instead of a huge hike in Council Tax bills to help a cash-strapped local authority balance its books.

Tendring District Council is facing a £2.3million funding shortfall next year and has been contemplating a number of options to make up the deficit - including increasing Council Tax bills by as much as 45%.

Conservative cabinet members have been wading through a 500-page budget dossier, which paints a grim picture of the council's finances.

In the document, which will be discussed at cabinet on January 9, accountants warned the gap between expenditure and revenue was likely to be £2.3m next year and was set to grow to £4.2m by 2008/9.

To address this shortfall, the accountants modelled five separate Council Tax scenarios.

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If Council Tax bills were to rise by 45% above inflation in 2004/5 - an increase of just under £50 a year for the average band D property - it would raise an extra £2.4m and wipe out the shortfall at a stroke.

But it would also be likely to incur the wrath of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who has pledged to clamp down on “excessive” increases by using his powers to cap councils.

The cabinet may be forced instead to opt for a lesser rise in Council Tax bills and implement cuts to services to make up the difference.

Terry Allen, leader of Tendring District Council, said last night: “It would be dangerous not to heed the Government's warning. Councils have been told that they will be capped if they exceed single-digit rises.”

Mr Allen said, with that in mind, he had been considering the other Council Tax rise scenarios in the accountants' document.

The lowest of these modelled the effect of 10% rise for next year - in contrast to the rise of about 2.5 % for this year - but that would leave the council needing to find £1.7m in savings and with no guarantee of not being capped.

“We have already cut services to the bone, so there can't be any more tinkering around at the edges - whole services will have to go,” warned Mr Allen.

“I warned people about this earlier this year - the Government is expecting us to provide statutory services which are costing more and more, but for which we are not getting enough money.”

But Labour district councillor, Les Double, condemned the Conservatives and said: “The people of Tendring are being asked to fork out potentially another 45% in Council Tax. It's appalling and it horrifies me.”

Finance bosses have identified a number of areas where savings could be made - for example, the council could save up to £100,000 by removing the temporary staff budget, but this could mean a lack of maternity cover in certain roles.

But most likely to be axed would be discretionary funding, which includes £10,000 on Tendring in Bloom and spending on “high-cost” areas, such as repairs to the Princes Theatre in Clacton and council buildings.

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