OAPs send council tax warning to Blair
PENSIONERS from East Anglia joined counterparts from across the country in London to voice their fury against rising council tax bills.Despite a lower-than-expected turnout, the rally sent a defiant message to Prime Minister Tony Blair and local authorities.
PENSIONERS from East Anglia joined counterparts from across the country in London to voice their fury against rising council tax bills.
Despite a lower-than-expected turnout, the rally sent a defiant message to Prime Minister Tony Blair and local authorities.
A large contingent from Suffolk and Essex joined the protest in Trafalgar Square on Saturday – scene of the infamous poll tax riots in 1990. It was organised by the Is It Fair campaign, and culminated in a petition being delivered to 10 Downing Street.
The crowd of protesters, holding home-made and printed banners, listened politely to speakers as tourists continued to take photographs around them.
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Council taxes have risen steadily in recent years, with a particularly steep average increase of 12.9% for 2003/4. Campaigners blame the sharp rise on the Government and local authorities.
In Essex last year, the county council raised its share of the council tax on an average Band D household by 16.7%. It is not yet known how much it will go up in April.
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The county council's rise in Suffolk was 18.5% last year, but early estimates are that the hike this year will be restricted to around 4% – although that has sparked questions from campaigners about why more was not done to limit last year's massive increase.
Reg Hartles, chairman of Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk, said at the march: "The amount of people here from Suffolk shows the strength of feeling in the county."
Colchester pensioner Tony Constable, spearheading a similar campaign in Essex, added: "I think we would have had a whole coach load or two from Colchester had it been held in the Spring and I think the same would have applied in Ipswich and Woodbridge."
Some of those marching said they were ready to refuse paying this year's increase in council tax.
Many were protesting that the council tax rises were eating into their savings.
Any increases in their pensions or heating allowance were swallowed by larger increases in the tax.
Some protesters said they resented being saddled with a larger tax burden simply because they wanted to stay in their family home.
Ken Lacey, 76, travelled to London with a coach party of 30 people from Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.
He said: "My pension went up £100 last year. My council tax went up £154. It does not make sense.
"A lot of our members are considering not paying above the rate of inflation (of their council tax) this year.
"If we have to go to court we will go mob-handed. Our problem is we are the most law-abiding community, the pensioners - we weren't brought up to go mob-handed anywhere.
"There has to be something really serious to put us in this position of distress."
The two-hour protest saw the small group wind along Whitehall to Downing Street where a petition carrying 42,000 signatures was handed to a security guard.
Roads had been blocked for the march and the occasional car honked its horn in encouragement.
The Rev Paul Nicolson of anti-poverty campaign group the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, said of the growing anger over the council tax: "The politicians have walked into this with their eyes open.
"People are driven to civil disobedience by the deafness of civil servants and politicians.
"It is the draconian enforcement of unavoidable debt we are dealing with."
Organisers who expected 3,000 to attend the rally said they had counted more than 2,000 people.
Christine Melson, heading the Is It Fair campaign, said: "I think it has gone very well, considering the march was off, then on.
"It had been cancelled at the end of last week and on Thursday I was told it was back on again.
"According to our counters there is between 2,000 to 3,000 people here."
She added: "We will march again if it's necessary. We must get the council tax changed - it needs to be changed into something fairer. We cannot afford to pay it."
Police said about 600 people attended the council tax demonstration.