Suffolk Council Tax up 3.9%

SUFFOLK County Council will increase its share of the council tax by 3.9% in April – the lowest on record.The rise, producing an average increase of 68p a week, contrasts with the record-breaking 18.

By Graham Dines

SUFFOLK County Council will increase its share of the council tax by 3.9% in April – the lowest on record.

The rise, producing an average increase of 68p a week, contrasts with the record-breaking 18.5% hike introduced last April which led to mass protests from pensioners.

But householders must now wait to see how much extra will be demanded from district councils and the police authority before they can calculate their final bills.

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Band D taxpayers will be charged £925.38 a year from April to pay for county services such as education, social care, libraries, roads maintenance, fire services and consumer protection. This accounts for around 80% of a council tax bill, the remainder being paid for district council services and policing.

Suffolk's rise – the East Anglian Daily Times forecast last week it would be no more than 4% – is less than the 4.7% being recommended to Essex County Council, a figure which next year will not include fire and emergency cover. Essex is also budgeting to make 100 employees redundant.

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Suffolk says its lower than expected 3.9% increase has been achieved thanks to an extra £24m from central government, a cash windfall from ending the council tax discount on second homes, finding £8.5m in efficiency, procurement and car allowances savings, and diverting £3.6m to key services.

Although the 18.5% rise this year led to an outcry from pensioner groups and a homeowners' backlash, council leader Bryony Rudkin believed that hike would prove to be to the long term benefit of council tax payers in general.

"The impact was forceful and stimulated a level of debate which focussed on a system which is flawed," she said.

David Rowe, finance portfolio holder who is in charge of the budget process, said the record rise had put the county's tax base on a par with surrounding authorities.

"Some good did come out of the increase – the extra £1m we pumped into social care helped 700 old people to live in their own homes rather than go into council-funded care which would have cost council tax payers far more."

He added: "I cannot give a cast iron guarantee about tax in 2005-06, but I want to ensure it is at the low end of the scale. I want to eliminate roller-coaster rises and introduce a culture of firm financial management."

Mrs Rudkin said Suffolk supported the national search for an alternative way to fund councils. She added: "I do recognise that even a 1% increase in tax is too high for pensioners and those on fixed incomes. The current system of local government finance produces annual increases in council tax that are too high.

"Council tax takes too much from people on low incomes and especially low fixed incomes."

Mrs Rudkin also thanked EADT readers who had contributed to the newspaper's "war on council waste" campaign.

Betty Bone, of the organisation Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk, last night pledged to "keep the pressure" on councillors to make sure future rises were not excessive.

"I am pleased they have listened to us," said Mrs Bone. "The 18.5% rise was a massive blow to the elderly in this county and will be long remembered. It seems our protests all over Suffolk have been worthwhile."

Babergh district has announced a rise of just 2.8% but Ipswich last week admitted it was "struggling" to keep its increase on the low side. The Government is likely to step in and cap the spending of the police authority or any council which seeks an increase in excess of 10%.

Council tax was introduced in 1993 following protests over the Poll Tax, the levy on householders which Margaret Thatcher's government brought in to replace rating.

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