Service cuts warning amid capping threat

SERVICES in Suffolk would be slashed and people may "suffer" if Prime Minister Tony Blair carries out a threat to cap the council tax, it was claimed last night.

SERVICES in Suffolk would be slashed and people may "suffer" if Prime Minister Tony Blair carries out a threat to cap the council tax, it was claimed last night.

David Rowe, the county council's budget portfolio holder, spoke out against capping powers after Mr Blair threatened to use them to prevent "unacceptable" rises in council tax yesterday .

The stance puts the Labour members of the council's Labour-Liberal Democrat administration on a collision course with party chiefs.

But Mr Rowe asserted the council – under fire after hiking the average Band D bill by 18.5% in April – was already working to balance its budget and set a "reasonable" council tax next year that would avoid the need for capping.

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He said: "I don't think people in Suffolk would welcome capping. We would then have to cut services to meet that capping limit and to do it at the last minute would mean those cuts would not be planned and not necessarily the most thought through ones.

"We need to have done work in the medium term to set a reasonable council tax but at the same time keeps our priority, frontline services."

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He added: "It does have the desired effect if you do cap council tax but it is a concern. It would be better if we worked with the government to ensure council tax rises were reasonable so there is no reason for capping.

"I hope that the government would not have the need to cap us."

He said he would expect Tony Blair to not only look at the rate of expenditure of the council when considering imposing capping measures but also the services being delivered and the extra responsibilities the council has.

"Capping does not address the fundamental problems with the council tax system and does not present any long term solutions. Certain services would be cut and people would suffer as a result," he added.

About £5 million-worth of savings have already been identified at Suffolk County Council ahead of the budget and Bryony Rudkin, the leader of the council, said the public was being consulted on what services they want from the council tax.

She added: "Capping is a measure the government takes to show it does not think a proposed budget is a good idea.

"If we were capped we would not be able to raise as much money to do the things that we want to and we would have to look at the budget again."

Cllr Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the Conservative Group at the council, said capping powers would control council tax rises.

However he said that, even though people in Suffolk would be thankful for anything that would stop their bills from increasing this year, "any measures now would be too late".

He said that the joint Labour and Liberal Democrat administration at the council should be "very worried" and he warned that the "massive" council tax rises and the threat of capping in Suffolk would be avoided only if savings were made on overheads.

These include the expense of council buildings, individual human resources and financial personnel for all its departments and the costs of replacing everybody who retires or leaves the organisation.

He said: "What capping does not solve is the fact that you need the councils to spend less money on overheads, run more efficient organisations and reduce the costs of the services that people need."

Mr Blair, speaking in the Commons yesterday, did not define "unacceptable" council tax rises, but in his budget the Chancellor Gordon Brown factored in increases in the charge of 7.5% a year for the next two years.

Mr Blair said: "We have said we will use the capping powers if necessary, in respect of unacceptable council tax rises. But I would point out that we have funded a 25% real terms increase in the money going to local government since 1997. And in the end, of course, it is for councils to decide their levels of council tax."

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