Fears over fire authority cash limit

A SENIOR Labour councillor last nightwarned that capping Essex Fire Authority could "cripple" the service and leave it short of cash to pay firefighters' salary awards.

A SENIOR Labour councillor last nightwarned that capping Essex Fire Authority could "cripple" the service and leave it short of cash to pay firefighters' salary awards.

Les Double, Labour's county council spokesman on the authority, was commenting after it emerged that the Government may use its capping powers to limit spending at local authorities, including fire brigades and police forces, which it deems have increased council tax too much or contributed to

excessive council tax bills.

Council tax capping is a mechanism by which central government may limit the budgets of individual local authorities. It works in most cases by specifying a maximum increase for an authority's budget where the authority is spending above the "standard" level specified by the Government.


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The Harwich councillor claimed any move could cost the Essex fire service around £3million to recall bills and send them out again - effectively cancelling out any savings intended by capping.

The current financial year is the first the fire authority has been able to calculate its own share of the final council tax bill in Essex and it was agreed at £56 a year for every Band D property in the county.

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This represents a theoretical 16% increase on last year's charge, which was previously included in the Essex County Council portion of the bill.

But with Local Government minister Nick Raynsford earlier this year indicating authorities increasing their taxes by above single figures in percentage terms could be in danger of being capped, Essex's fire service now fears the worst.

Mr Double said the total budget for the authority in 2004/5 was £65million and it has also been required under the new system to build up its own reserves of £2million.

He said: "If the Government caps us those reserves would just be wiped out. It will cost us some £200,000 for each of the 14 districts and boroughs to re-bill.

"It would be unfair and crazy to do that in our first year of the system. I don't know how much Mr Prescott wishes to save by capping, but he could be wiping out that by forcing extra costs on us - it's all public money we're talking about.

"We would be crippled by any such drastic action. We'd have to make further cuts and it would also put in jeopardy or ability to pay for the increased pay awards for firefighters."

Graham Noakes, Fire Brigades' Union spokesman for East Anglia, said: "The authority can't afford tyo make any more savings. They're already down to the bone.

"Our members are still waiting for what's been promised to them and I don't think we'll be too happy if we don't get what's been promised."

The Government is due to announce its actions in the House of Commons on Thursday.

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