Council tax debate rages

HOUSEHOLDERS' anger at the new north-south divide – the deliberate policy of central Government to divert council cash north of the Watford Gap – reached the Commons and the Lords this week, with no sign of any ministerial apology.

By Graham Dines

HOUSEHOLDERS' anger at the new north-south divide – the deliberate policy of central Government to divert council cash north of the Watford Gap – reached the Commons and the Lords this week, with no sign of any ministerial apology.

Council tax in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk will rocket next year, as local authorities seem to take no account of the ability of people to pay the ultimate stealth tax.

Essex and Norfolk, both Conservative controlled, believe the Government is to blame for changing the grant formula, while Suffolk – the fiefdom of Labour and the Liberal Democrat councillors – have a more rosy view of Whitehall's parsimony.

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Lord Hanningfield, the Conservative leader of Essex County Council, said in a House of Lords debate that people living in the south and east of England cannot afford "endlessly" to pay council tax increases caused by a change in the Government funding formula.

"Just as the limit was reached on domestic rates, so we may now be approaching the limit that people are prepared to pay in council tax,' he warned, blaming the new funding formula for distribution of local government grant for causing the problem," said Lord Hanningfield.

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Lord Hanningfield told the Lords debate that levels of council tax were directly dependent on the amount of money received in grant.

"This imbalance of funding leads to the gearing effect, every extra pound of spending falls on the council taxpayer. So for most councils, a 1% increase in spending beyond what the Government chooses to fund in grant, is equal to a 4% increase in council tax. With a low grant settlement the problem is obviously severe.

"In any changes there will be winners and losers. But this is the first time I have been involved in a situation where the mechanisms have been explicitly designed to create winners and losers."

He added: "The Government has shifted millions of pounds from authorities in the South East to authorities in the Midlands and the north. The pressures on Essex County Council bordering London and the south east are immense.

"We have trouble recruiting teachers and social workers because we cannot compete with salary expectations and this situation can only get worse for many authorities in the south east.

"For pensioners and others nearly all that they have been offered this year has been offset by our council tax increase which is government inspired to put extra money into schools.'

Lord Hanningfield said people in Essex in common with most counties in the south east, felt the Government did not care. The growth in inequalities produced by the settlement were unsustainable.

The Essex Tory was indirectly replied to in the Commons by Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford, who was on the receiving end of sharp criticism from MPs who believe this year's Government aid for councils is unfair.

Mr Raynsford angrily rejected suggestions he was robbing the south east, saying it was simply untrue. "The south east as a whole is receiving an extra £255 million, that is 4.5% more grant than the year before. That is not a cut by any stretch of the imagination."

He mocked Tory Environment spokesman Eric Pickles – the MP for Brentwood and Ongar – for suggesting he was "mugging middle England." He said Mr Pickles's local authority, Essex, "should be grateful" for the settlement it was getting.

Great Yarmouth Labour MP Tony Wright this week complained that Tory-controlled Norfolk's council tax rise of 16% was five times the average pay rise. Perhaps he should consult with his Labour pals in Suffolk, about to impose an 18.4% hike.

Ipswich Labour MP Chris Mole, who sympathised with pensioners for the unwelcome increase in Suffolk tax bills, said: "I'm not surprised the council is having to look for new resources to meet demand."

How do you square a Labour MP complaining that a Tory council has increased tax by 16% with another Labour MP supporting an 18.4% tax rise implemented by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors? It's simply called politics.

A BAN on the testing of cosmetics on animals in the European Union have been welcomed by Robert Sturdy, Conservative Euro MP for the East of England.

The new laws mean that animal tests for which there are possible alternatives will be phased out in six years. This covers 11 out of 14 possible tests.  For the remaining three tests, a 10-year deadline has been set, with a potential two-year extension.

Mr Sturdy, Conservative Rural Affairs spokesman, said: "I am very pleased that this legislation has gone through. But I can see it may be necessary to test on animals to develop life- saving drugs for humans, though I have never felt it was necessary for cosmetics."

IPSWICH'S Labour MP Chris Mole will next month introduce a Private Members Bill with the aim of changing 90 year old laws on legal deposit to ensure electronic or e-publications and other non-print materials are saved as part of the published archive.

"We need legislation now to ensure that a substantial and vital part of the nation's published heritage is not lost. We must ensure that the 21st century is not written about in future centuries as a new Dark Age where significant data and records are missing because certain formats were not collected and saved for posterity," said Mr Mole.

HOUSE of Commons Speaker Michael Martin was unimpressed when resident luvvy Glenda Jackson sought a statement on the chaos caused by a couple of centimetres of snow last week.

Miss Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, demanded on Monday that Transport Secretary Alistair Darling go to the House to explain to MPs why a "minuscule" fall of snow had caused a public transport "debacle."

Stansted Airport and the M11 in Essex and whole chunks of eastern Cambridgeshire ground to a halt on Friday following the snow, trapping in their cars Richard Spring (Tory, West Suffolk), David Ruffley (Tory, Bury St Edmunds) and Geoffrey Van Orden (Tory MEP, East of England) for many hours.

Speaker Martin said he thought ministers were investigating the matter, adding rather pointedly: "I would also report that it is snowing in Glasgow and there is no problem at all."

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