Councils `disappointed' with grant cash

By Graham Dines Political EditorCOUNCILS across Suffolk were left deeply disappointed last night by the Government's announcement of how much money it will give them next year.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor

COUNCILS across Suffolk were left deeply disappointed last night by the Government's announcement of how much money it will give them next year.

Borough and district councils were given a below-inflation increase in their Whitehall funding and now face a struggle to maintain jobs and services.

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The problem facing Suffolk County and seven borough and district councils is the increase in the cost of the goods and services they buy is way above the headline figure of inflation.

From paper clips and accommodation costs for the elderly, to the bitumen needed to mend roads and employee National Insurance costs, local authorities pay more each year than inflation.

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Whitehall grants account for about two-thirds of council spending, with the remainder made up from Council Tax.

The less the Government gives, the more householders have to pay – although next year, councils are likely to be capped, leading to cuts in services.

The Council Tax bill that lands on people's doormats is made up of charges levied by parish or town, borough or district and county councils, as well as the police and fire authorities.

But how much householders will pay in the financial year 2004/5 will not be known until about February after all the various budgets have been completed.

Suffolk County Council will get an extra £21million from the Government, £8m less than it required to deliver a similar standard of services next year.

David Rowe, its portfolio holder for strategic and financial planning, said the increase “has not been sufficient to fully meet the increasing demand on our services and the extra responsibilities and commitments given to us by Government.”

He added: “However, we are still determined to set a reasonable level of Council Tax and will work harder to find the additional savings needed.

“We still need to carry out detailed analysis of these figures and it is still far too early to say what the level of Council Tax will be for next year.”

Suffolk Coastal District Council will receive £6.466m from the Government, an increase of £149,000 or 2.4%.

A council spokesman said: “We are going to be burning the midnight oil to understand what these figures mean.

“Until we can find out exactly what the true implications are for Suffolk Coastal, it's far too early to be able to say to the Council Tax payers of this district what the implications are.”

Initial figures showed St Edmundsbury Borough Council will get a 6.4% reduction on last year's grant of £6.086m, but the authority is still waiting for details of revised funding for rent allowances and Council Tax benefits.

Council leader, John Griffiths, said: “On the face of it, this is extremely disappointing news and it is unhelpful that we haven't got the full picture.”

Roger Saunders, leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, said: We will receive £577,000 less than our budget provision, based on a 5% increase. In cash terms, this is a real reduction of over £300,000.”

He added: “On first reading, this is very, very disappointing. If confirmed, it will mean we have to seriously revisit our budgeting process.

“This means that we have to find more savings than those already identified and this will have a direct impact on services provided to the community.”

Babergh District Council will get an increase of 2.4%, well below the 7% rise it had anticipated.

Sue Carpendale, chairman of its strategic committee, warned: “Achieving our aim of a Babergh Council Tax increase at the rate of inflation will be extremely difficult.”

John Le Grys, finance spokesman for Ipswich Borough Council, described its increase of about 2.5% to £9.277m as “very disappointing”.

Ipswich already has the highest Council Tax rate in East Anglia and Mr Le Grys said the Government's decision to grant it a below-inflation rise “leaves us facing some very difficult decisions on Council Tax rises or service levels.”

Waveney District Council will receive £8.34m, an increase of 2.2%, but no-one from the authority was available last night to comment on this.

Forest Heath District Council will get £4.764m, a rise of 2.4%, but John Alexander, its strategic director of resources, would not commit himself to giving an assessment on the consequences for householders until receiving final details of housing benefit allowances.

Suffolk Police Authority will receive £66.014m, an increase of 3.3%, and its chairman, Christine Laverock, said that was slightly better than expected.

She added: “Now that we have the provisional settlement, we need to work out the implications for next year's budget and Council Tax levels and taking into account the money available from additional grants for specific projects.

“We also need time to consider the figures in the light of a public consultation exercise, currently under way, which is asking local people what they want from their police service and how much they are prepared to pay for it.”

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