Council tax to rise by 3.8%

By Graham Dines and Mark HeathA RECRUITMENT freeze should be imposed for non-essential county council staff to save more than £2million - enough to reduce the council tax rise to the rate of inflation - the Conservatives have claimed.

By Graham Dines and Mark Heath

A RECRUITMENT freeze should be imposed for non-essential county council staff to save more than £2million - enough to reduce the council tax rise to the rate of inflation - the Conservatives have claimed.

However, their plan was voted down yesterday as Labour and Liberal Democrats imposed a 3.8% hike in Suffolk County Council's council tax, which takes the total increase over the past three years to 36%.

It means Suffolk's portion of council tax bills will rise in April by 66p a week to an annual levy of £928.48 for the average band D properties - however, the final bills will include charges from district or borough councils, Suffolk Police Authority and town and parish councils.

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Conservative leader, Jeremy Pembroke, said 680 non-essential staff had left the county council's service last year.

The average cost of employing these personnel was £22,124, with an additional £435 needed to recruit them.

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“If we voted not to replace just 95 of these employees, we could save £2.1m, enough to keep the council tax rise down to the retail price index, on which pension increases are calculated,” he added.

“We are not suggesting frontline jobs should be lost - just posts in central administration which are certainly not essential.”

Finance portfolio holder David Rowe, presenting the council's budget, said this year's 3.8% increase was the lowest of any shire county that had responsibility for fire and rescue services.

He defended last year's record 18.5% rise because it had enabled a huge cash injection into social care, allowing 700 elderly people to be looked after in their own homes rather than in more expensive council accommodation.

“We have looked at our budget in a sensible, strategic way. This is not a budget just for this year, but one which will put us in good stead for years to come,” insisted Mr Rowe.

“The public has made it quite clear that high council tax levels are no longer sustainable. This budget is our answer to those concerns.”

Meanwhile, the Conservatives voted against a controversial plan to stop subsidising school-to-home transport for pupils attending Roman Catholic secondary schools.

The proposal is being introduced as part of the county council's 2% cuts to stop the council tax from rising to the same level as last year's record 18.5% increase.

The Conservative said the transport subsidies, and £368,000 of planned cuts in education grants, could be maintained by taking the cash out of councillors' locality budgets.

In a heated debate, several Conservative councillors criticised the slashing of free home-to-school transport.

Conservative deputy leader, Peter Aldous, called the move “hasty and ill-timed”, while Stefan Oliver was one of its fiercest critics, labelling it “disproportionate, unfair and unreasonable”.

He added: “Your penny-pinching cuts may well lead to some of the best schools in Suffolk having to close because of a sudden fall in numbers.”

But Labour councillor, John Le Grys, retorted: “Only Catholic children get free transport, while everybody else has to make payments towards it.

“What we are proposing is that we act in a fair way to all parents and all children - that is the right thing to do. We are removing a discrimination and being fair to all.”

Tony Lewis, council portfolio holder for children and young people, added a full consultation would be carried out before changes were made, with charges coming in by September at the earliest.

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