Council tax hopes raised

PAINFUL council tax rises may be avoided in Suffolk next year after many local authorities in the county received better-than-expected Government grants.

PAINFUL council tax rises may be avoided in Suffolk next year after many local authorities in the county received better-than-expected Government grants.

The grants, which will dictate how much district and borough councils have to charge council tax payers from April, were revealed at Whitehall yesterday.

But the cautious optimism of many authorities was tempered with warnings that the pressure to rein in budgets will remain high.

Suffolk County Council received a 6.7% increase in its Government grant compared to last year.

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David Rowe, portfolio holder for strategic and financial planning, said: "Our initial assessment is that the settlement is good news for the people of Suffolk as it appears to be slightly above our expectations.

"The Government has listened to our concerns and gone some way to increasing investment in public services.

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"We will now be working hard to keep council tax to a low level while continuing to improve our frontline services."

Earlier this year, Suffolk Police Authority said it was expecting to set its most difficult budget in recent times. It has been given a grant rise of 3.8%

Christine Laverock, chair of Suffolk Police Authority, said: "The figure is a little better than expected and may indicate that our efforts, along with colleagues in the police authorities nationwide, to highlight the potential for a funding shortfall have been effective.

"However, funding will be extremely tight in the next year and the years to come. We now need to study all the figures in detail to see what the implications are for policing in Suffolk and for the setting of the police's part of next year's council tax."

Babergh District Council received a 6% grant rise, the biggest at district level in the county.

But Sue Carpendale, council leader, said the reason was that part of the grant withheld from it last year was now being paid, she said.

In the 2004 to 2005 period, the council was entitled to an additional £347,000 but because of the ceiling put on grant increases by the Government this was not paid.

She said: "We were expecting money to be withheld and some of that has been released so we are relieved at the settlement. The important message is that it is a better than feared settlement but that does not mean that the brakes are off.

"We still have to find savings as we need to be more efficient in all the things we do.

"We are resolved to continue to aim for an inflation level council tax increase and if we are able to use less of the reserves it will be sensible in the long term."

At Forest Heath District Council the handout has risen by 2.5% - the lowest increase in the county.

Council chairman Carol Lynch said the next year would see extra responsibilities placed on the authority, with changes to the licensing laws threatening to take up vast amounts of officer time at a large cost.

She said: "We are doing out best to keep council tax down and we are determined we will not reduce services, and we will go on achieving to a high level."

Ipswich Borough Council's support grant increased by 3%, and Paul Matthews, head of finance, said: "Obviously we welcome the increase, which is higher than the spending review forecast in the summer.

"However, there is a slight disappointment that Ipswich is the county town and it has the second lowest rise out of the councils in the county. We are also 1% below the average for shire districts, which is 4%.

"The current administration is endeavouring to keep the Ipswich increase next year to inflation or less and this will help towards that goal."

St Edmundsbury Borough Council leader John Griffiths said: "Obviously we will have to analyse the details, but at first glance this looks like a reasonable grant. Hopefully it will assist us in coming through on our commitment in reducing council tax rises again."

A Suffolk Coastal District Council spokesman said the grant would do little to help it in its bid to keep council tax rises to no more than 5% and added that the Government had "once again failed to recognise the needs of our rural district".

He said external factors, including inflation, would add almost £1 million to its costs next year, not including new Government requirements or local demands for improved services.

"At first glance, all the Government is giving us towards these extra costs is £236,000, less than a quarter of what we need, and that is before we read the small print," he said.

"However, I can reassure our council taxpayers that we have anticipated this bad news.

"From recent bitter experience, we predicted that the Government would not pay its fair share of our additional costs, which is why we have been carrying out a top to bottom review of all our services to identify over £1m of savings."

A spokesman for Waveney District Council, which received a 3.6% increase, said: "The council faces great difficulty in its budget setting process. We have greatly increased demands from recycling and homelessness expenditures.

"While we welcome the grant allocation we would have preferred to have received the shire county average increase of 4%."

Andrew Good, chief executive of Mid Suffolk District Council, said while its 4.5% rise was welcome, some of that was simply restoring money which had not been paid in previous years.

He said: "It does make planning the budget a bit easier but, in real terms, the council is still £282,000 worse off than in 2003/4."

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