Suffolk authorities continue to face pressures as council tax rates set

Endeavour House

Suffolk County Council takes the lion's share of bills that will be dropping on to doorsteps later this year. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

As councils across Suffolk juggle with their budgets for the year ahead, politicians make great play of the importance of the figures they are dealing with.

But how much of this is really important to voters - and how much is just window-dressing?

The actual tax involved doesn't look huge, especially when knocked down to weekly amounts charged by the authorities.

And the fact is central government keeps a tight leash on what councils are able to charge, which means individual authorities have little room to manoeuvre.

When council tax bills drop on to household doormats across Suffolk over the next few weeks, the largest element of the bill will be that of the county council.

It is set to go up by a fraction under 3% - that is 1% less than the government would allow because it will be using only half the "social care precept" that ministers allow it to charge.

It means the county council element of tax bills for Band B households (by far the most common size in Suffolk) will go up by 62p a week - instead of 83p a week.

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District and borough councils can put their bills up by just under 2% - unless they froze them last year, in which case they can put them up slightly more.

Ipswich and Babergh councils are putting their council tax bills up by the maximum and East Suffolk is planning to put its element of tax bills up by 2.89%.

West Suffolk is preparing slightly different council tax bills for those living in the old St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath parts of the district and these will be published shortly - it is the last year there will be different bills and from 2023 there will be a single rate across the whole district.

Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore is putting his element of council tax bills up by 4.2%.

The county's 21p weekly saving (or £11 over a whole year on average for households) means members of the ruling party can tell their voters that they have kept bills down and done what they can to cut the cost of living - even though their contribution is very small.

What it also does is give ministers and civil servants the ability to take the moral high ground when batting away calls for new financial support.

If Suffolk turns to the government and says "Can we have more money for our social care?" if things get tight later in the year, ministers can say: "You had the chance to raise more money from households but you chose not to take it."

It's an argument that was often heard as councils struggled during the days of austerity 10 years ago.

Another issue that is facing district and borough councils - especially Ipswich - is the loss of income from commercial activities like car parks.

Ipswich council leader David Ellesmere said the income from its long-stay car parks, the ones typically used by office workers based in the town centre, was still considerably down on what it was pre-pandemic. 

Portman Road car park

Ipswich's long stay car parks, like those in Portman Road, are still not being heavily used by office workers. - Credit: Paul Geater

And it is unclear when or whether that will ever return to pre-March 2020 levels as more employers and workers are committed to some working from home.

Several councils - Mid Suffolk, Babergh and Ipswich especially - now earn a considerable amount of their income from property investments through companies they own like Cifco and Ipswich Borough Assets.

The Anglia Retail Park

Ipswich Borough Assets owns the Anglia Retail Park whose rental income helps to support council services. - Credit: Paul Geater

This still appears to be successful in providing income for the councils from rents - although the volatility of the commercial property market over the last two years does mean that the paper value of the holdings has reduced.

Another element that is frustrating to councils is that government support is now being decided on an annual basis rather than two or three years in advance, as was the case before the pandemic.

That means they don't know exactly what help will be coming until Christmas before the budget has to be set - while nods and winks from Whitehall are useful in giving an idea what might be in store, it means the final figures cannot be worked out until January.

And when calculating council tax bills, an important element outside Ipswich is the parish or town council precept - and these can vary considerably.

A village parish precept can be very small - but some of the larger market town councils across the county with several members of staff and major responsibilities can charge a significant amount to residents.