Miliband looks to the future

ONE of the biggest challenges facing the government is how to keep town hall spending in check as householders rebel against ever spiralling council tax bills.

ONE of the biggest challenges facing the government is how to keep town hall spending in check as householders rebel against ever spiralling council tax bills.

Nothing infuriates middle England more than the voracious demands of county, district and police authorities who, year after year, hike up council tax way above the rate of inflation.

As the rise in council tax far outstrips pensions and other benefits, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has launched the Lyons Review, to report on how best to fund council spending. At the same time, ministers are looking at the way council services are administered and whether major savings can be made by scrapping the current two tier form of local government in shire counties including Essex and Suffolk and replacing them with large unitary councils responsible for all local spending with the exception of policing.

David Miliband, who is in charge of regions and the communities in Mr Prescott's department, has embarked on an England-wide tour to listen to local council and community leaders ahead of a White Paper due in July which will spell out the Government's preferred option.

But unlike the last major upheaval in local government in 1972 by Edward Heath's Conservative government - which scrapped county boroughs and historic counties such as East and West Suffolk, Huntingdonshire, the ridings of Yorkshire, Cumberland and Westmoreland - Mr Miliband does not want to impose a solution.

Although shire counties won't go willingly to the sacrificial altar, he wants council leaders to talk to each other, to be pragmatic, realise that the status quo is not an option, and to come up with a preferred option for their localities.

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Entwined in all this is Mr Miliband's pet project, city regions, and during talks in Ipswich last night and today, his ear will have been bent by Ipswich, Colchester, Southend, Norwich, Peterborough and Luton, who are pressing to be given city region status to enable them to deliver the jobs, housing and sustainable growth being demanded by the Government.

Southend is already one of two unitary councils in Essex, and no doubt has designs on absorbing neighbouring Rochford. Peterborough and Luton also have unitary status and could fulfil city region requirements, while Norwich is one of the largest non-unitary cities in England and is almost certain to be granted independence from Norfolk in the local government review.

Which leaves Colchester and Ipswich. The natural marriage in north Essex would be the amalgamation of Colchester and Tendring - the Harwich, Frinton, Clacton area - into one unitary authority with a population well over 250,000.

Ipswich is growing, but its 130,000 current population seems too small to support unitary status. In his meetings today, Mr Miliband is likely to be lobbied to encourage council leaders in Suffolk to recognise that Ipswich should grow beyond its current boundaries and absorb some neighbouring communities or even join forces with the whole of another district authority, possibly Suffolk Coastal or Babergh.

Any reorganisation won't be implemented before 2009 and may depend on how long Mr Miliband remains in John Prescott's department. If he is moved in a Cabinet reshuffle, have Mr Prescott and Gordon Brown got the determination to push ahead in the face of stiff opposition from the largely Tory shires?

I suspect the answer to that is: only if they can sell it on the back of large savings in council spending which could result from axing one layer of local government. They could take on board the following figures from a reader - who does not wish to be identified - who has produced them after trawling through his father's council tax demands and the amount of state pension he received.

In year 1994-95, his father's Band E property in Woodbridge paid £661.12 in council tax while the basic married couple's pension was £4,789.20 a year - making a ratio of council tax to pension of 13.8%.

In 2003-4, when Suffolk county council jacked up its demand by 18.5%, the council tax demand was £1,393.87 while the married couple's state pension was £6,437.60, the ratio of council tax to pension rising to 21.65%.

In the current year, council tax is £1,499.90 and the pension £6,822.40. The increase in council tax in those 12 years was £838.78 - 126.87% - while the overall pension increase during the same period was £2,033.20 - 42.45%.

WOMEN'S rights champion Tessa Jowell - still reeling from the allegations regarding the financial affairs of her husband David Mills - joined the celebrations in London on Wednesday to mark International Women's Day.

Before bursting into a chorus of a specially rewritten version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, she urged football and other sports organisations to do all they can to help raise awareness of domestic violence. “Thousands of men attend sporting events every week. Most of those men will have sisters, mothers, female friends and colleagues, some of whom will be victims of domestic violence.

“By increasing awareness of this terrible, but hidden, crime, sports fans can help make sure that victims no longer suffer in silence but get the help they need,” said Ms Jowell, who is culture, media and sport secretary.

Meanwhile, soccer fans heading for this summer's World Cup in Germany have been warned that if they seek alternative pleasure, it could come from thousands of women and children smuggled into the country to work as sex slaves by international gangs.

Euro MPs from all parties, who used International Women's Day to launch a “Red card to forced prostitution,” have urged European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to put pressure on governments to tighten up border controls and step up efforts to identify women and children being moved illegally through EU countries to Germany who would be “exploited away from the eyes of the cameras.”

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