Massive council tax hike not ruled out

SUFFOLK councillors, still reeling from the public outcry at this year's record-breaking 18.5% increase in council tax, have refused to rule out another double figure rise next April.

By Graham Dines

SUFFOLK councillors, still reeling from the public outcry at this year's record-breaking 18.5% increase in council tax, have refused to rule out another double figure rise next April.

The county council, which over the past four years has hiked typical Band D tax rates by 46.4% – the highest in England – has started its budget process by ordering a 2% savings in efficiency across all services with the exception of schools.

However, the authority will not publish any figures on next year's spending needs and will give no indication of the possible rise in tax.

This is in stark contrast to neighbouring Tory controlled Norfolk County Council, which this week forecast an increase of at least 8% to plug a projected £21.6million hole in next year's budget.

Bob Sumners, Norfolk's director of finance, said that before taking into account any efficiency savings, latest budgetary pressures indicated a tax rise of at least 8%.

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"There may be further additional pressures that will need to be considered," he added.

Councils throughout England are anxiously awaiting this year's council tax support settlement from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

Last year, Suffolk received an increase in Government cash of more than twice the rate of inflation but still increased property taxes by 18.5% for average Band D householders.

Ruling Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors yesterday

would not give any indication of the council's spending plans or what tax rate they are considering.

Challenged by independent councillor Richard Kemp to say whether 2% efficient savings were sufficient "to keep any tax increase to a single figure next year," resources portfolio holder David Rowe refused.

Opposition Tory leader Jeremy Pembroke said that householders least able to afford swingeing increases, pensioners and those on fixed incomes "are worthy at this stage of some indication of what the tax rise to be imposed by this administration is going to be. Your silence is absolutely deafening."

Mr Rowe insisted: "Until we know the settlement from Government, we will now know the exact amount of money we will need to raise," insisted Mr Rowe."

He admitted that the reaction from householders at the 18.5% rise was unprecedented and added: "This year we have included in our planning a review of the base budget and we will be looking to re-prioritise to ensure the money we spend meets the priorities of the council."

He said the council's aim was to levy an affordable level of tax while protecting and improving services in Suffolk.

IF council tax rises in Suffolk are in the region of 10% it is likely to lead to a widespread revolt by pensioners and other groups on low incomes.

Jack Thain, chairman of Suffolk Pensioners' Association, said: "I cannot believe that our county councillors cannot rule out a substantial rise in council tax for next year.

"Pensioners have been hit so hard by the 18.5% rise this year that we will not tolerate another huge increase."

Mr Thain, who is also chairman of the eastern region of the National Pensioners' Convention, said that if a double figure rise is later confirmed he would have no hesitation in organising a pensioners' revolt.

"According to Government ministers there is no justification for local authorities to impose such huge increases.

"Pensions are only expected to receive a small inflation-linked rise so older people simply could not afford another huge hike in council tax payments," he said.

"My pledge to pensioners in Suffolk is that we will fight any increases in council tax payments in the region of ten per cent. Councillors should be aware that pensioners are a powerful group and we simply will not put up with another large council tax increase," said Mr Thain.

n Suffolk's spending of £580.525m for the 12 months from last April is receiving a grant of £370.939m from Whitehall. Council taxpayers financed the balance, with Band D properties paying £890.28 a year. In addition, householders have to pay for services provided by their district council and the police authority.