New council tax shock in Suffolk
COUNCIL tax is rising faster in Suffolk than in any other English county, it has emerged.Figures released to MPs reveal between April 1, 2000, and this year, Suffolk's joint Labour and Liberal Democrat administration has increased the county's tax by 46.
By Graham Dines
COUNCIL tax is rising faster in Suffolk than in any other English county, it has emerged.
Figures released to MPs reveal between April 1, 2000, and this year, Suffolk's joint Labour and Liberal Democrat administration has increased the county's tax by 46.4%.
Last night, Suffolk County Council defended the rise, insisting it was investing in key services such as better social care.
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But angry opposition councillors and campaigners renewed their attacks on the increases, insisting taxpayers were not getting value for money.
The Government has confirmed that in 2000-01, Suffolk council tax payers were asked to find £142.7m – the difference between Whitehall grants and the actual costs of running services such as education, social care, transport, libraries, and fire protection.
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In the current financial year, the county council is asking taxpayers to find £209m, an extra 46.4%.
Tory controlled Essex has hiked its council tax take by 42.3% in the same period – from £315.5m to £448.8m – and Norfolk, which changed control from Labour to Conservative in 2001, has increased its take by 39.5%.
England's largest shire county Kent – administered by the Conservatives – demanded an extra 34.2% from taxpayers over four years, Labour controlled Lancashire by 25.3% and Tory Cheshire by the lowest level of all, 24.9%.
Suffolk's council tax take percentage increase was also far higher than most unitary authorities such as Derby (22.7%), Windsor (22%), York (24.3%) and Nottingham (21.4%), only being "beaten" by Blackpool (51.3%), the Isle of Scilly, Southampton and Swindon.
The information was supplied to the House of Commons by Phil Hope, a junior minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who was replying to Charles Hendry, Conservative MP for The Weald.
In April, Suffolk increased council tax by a massive 18.5%, the largest in the history of the authority, leading to protests – especially among pensioners and those on fixed incomes.
David Rowe, Suffolk's portfolio holder for budget, acknowledged that in the 2001/2 financial year, Suffolk was in 25th place out of 34 in the league table of county council tax levels. It has now risen to 12th position.
Three years ago Norfolk was in 16th place and Essex 17th, while this year Essex has risen to 11th and Norfolk to 14th.
"Suffolk's overall approach to budgeting in terms of the basics has been broadly similar to our neighbours – for example passporting education funding to schools and dealing with inflation and demand pressures. We were all affected by the grant formula changes this financial year," said Mr Rowe.
"The difference between us of 3-4% is down to our extra investment in our priorities – for example an extra £1m in social care, allowing more older people to live in their own homes rather than go into residential care."
Jeremy Pembroke, Conservative opposition leader on the county council, said the people of Suffolk had seen no improvement in services despite the massive increase.
"The county council is a one star authority for social care and it is regrettable that the people of this county are not seeing any real benefit from the increase," he said.
Richard Spring, Conservative MP for West Suffolk, said: "It is proper for the people of the county to ask 'where has the money gone?'.
"It has certainly not gone to school budgets or transport in Suffolk and the county is suffering from a deep and worsening social care crisis."
David Ruffley, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said: "The Lib-Lab politicians at County Hall are spending money in the wrong way, on the wrong things at the wrong time.
"In particular, older residents see huge council tax hikes with a deteriorating nursing and residential home provision – the whole thing is a disgrace."
Council tax "rebel" Betty Bone, who said she would rather go to prison than pay this year's 18.5% rise, agreed to meet the charge when she was threatened with bailiffs.
The pensioner, from Sudbury, said: "I'm very annoyed about the tax we have to pay and I don't think we get value for money at all.
"There's a lot of opposition in Suffolk and we have got to get together to put a stop to this nonsense – them putting bunging on what they like and us getting nothing in return."
Ken Felstead, who is hoping to establish a Council Taxpayers Rights Party in Suffolk, said it was "no surprise" the county had suffered the sharpest rise in England.
"I don't think we have seen any improvements in services at all and it feels like we are just subsidising everybody and everything else," he said.
Mr Felstead, from Stutton, near Ipswich, added: "It seems that us East Anglians put up with an awful lot and don't whinge like they do in other parts of the country."
"Most of us feel like we have to grin and bear it but I think enough is enough. It really is a disgrace."
HOW COUNCIL TAX BILLS HAVE RISEN
Council 2000-1* 2003-4** % change
Cambridgeshire £118m £157.8m 33.7
Essex £315.5m £448.8m 42.3
Norfolk £174.1m £242.9m 39.5
Suffolk £142.7m £209m 46.4
* Own council tax requirement for 2000-1
** Own council tax requirement for 2003-4