Suffolk tax hike blasted

A BITTER row erupted last night after Suffolk County Council revealed it was planning to increase council tax bills by 18% - more than six times the rate of inflation.

A BITTER row erupted last night after Suffolk County Council revealed it was planning to increase council tax bills by 18% - more than six times the rate of inflation.

The move would mean householders living in the average band D property are facing a council tax bill of more than £1,000.

Suffolk County Council blamed the tax hike on a lack of funding from the Government and the spiralling cost of social care.

But pensioners' leaders from north Suffolk criticised the proposal as "disgusting" and said they would hit the elderly the hardest.

Council tax bills rose by 11% last year and Suffolk County Council had predicted they would have to be increased by between 11% and 14% this year.

But the authority has now revealed householders face an 18.3% hike, which would mean a bill of about £889 for band D properties.

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They will also have to pay charges to Suffolk police and district or borough councils and, in some areas, to town or parish councils, which will take the final council tax bill over the £1,000 mark.

Setting out its budget plan for 2003/04, the county council said it wanted to ensure that broadly the current range and quality of services would be delivered to a greater number of people.

It warned the budget would also have to take into consideration: the impact of inflation, increased pupil numbers; and increases in the number of children looked after, older people and people with learning disabilities.

Suffolk County Council also proposed making modest extra spending on transport, highways maintenance, disposing of fridges and abandoned cars and increased library opening hours.

David Rowe, the county council's portfolio holder for strategic and financial planning, said even if the council were to make no additional improvements to services this year, the council tax would still have to rise by 13.2%.

He blamed the spiralling cost of social care for the increase, rather than just a lack of funding from the Government. The council will also have to accommodate 1,000 more schoolchildren this year.

Mr Rowe described Suffolk County Council's grant increase from the Government of just over 6% as "neutral", falling halfway between the lowest in the country – Essex at just below 4% - and Wiltshire at almost 9%.

"All councils will have to put their council tax up. Suffolk has traditionally set quite low council tax. We are catching up and making improvements," he said.

"It is always a difficult balance to meet. Do you want to have low council tax and lose public services or excellent public services and high council tax?"

Government targets continue to influence the budget and Mr Rowe, a Labour county councillor, said the authority was determined to win two stars for social care – currently only a single-star service.

The number of looked after children in Suffolk soared from 664 in 2001/2 to 726 by September last year, considerably higher than the target of 622 for 2003.

Suffolk County Council is also struggling to meet targets for the delayed transfers of care for older people – a failing that could lead to severe penalties under a new Government scheme.

With additional investment in services paid for by the tax increase, Mr Rowe said the council could meet its goals. "We aren't just throwing money about," he added.

Peter Monk, the Liberal Democrat leader on the council, said: "Our consultation process has looked very carefully at what people want. Maintaining a high level of services does cost money."

But Jack Thain, who lives in the Waveney area and is chairman of Suffolk Pensioners' Association, could not believe the scale of the rise being proposed, branding the increases "stupid and disgusting".

Mr Thain said pensioners and others on fixed incomes would be hardest hit by the proposals and warned: "If these proposals are accepted by Suffolk County Council, any increase in pensions will be wiped out immediately.

"Any increase in pensions is linked to inflation, so a council tax rise of these proportions is so unfair."

Mr Thain felt the costs of maintaining social care in the county should be met by more generous grants from the Government.

"I will be calling on all councillors, both at county and district authorities, to join with us in the pensioners' movements and lobby the Government for more money. To have to pay for these services by instigating such a large council tax rise is wrong," he said.

"We know that Waveney District Council and other district councils are also looking to have higher than inflation rises for their share of the council tax. For the county to be proposing such a huge rise is stupid and disgusting."

Patricia Flegg, from Halesworth, a member of Waveney District Council and Halesworth Town Council, was also shocked by the scale of the proposed increases.

"We have heard mutterings that the county council were proposing a large increase for their share of the council tax, but never imagined it would be so high. A rise on this scale puts pressure on district and parish councils all over Suffolk," she said.

"There has to be some serious thinking done about how it is necessary to propose such a large increase in order to balance the books."

Waveney District Council is currently discussing a package of measures designed to keep any rise on its share of the council tax bill to a minimum.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative MP for South Suffolk, said 18.3% - an increase of more than six times the rate of inflation - was "disgracefully high" and added: "This is going to heap a heavy burden on my constituents."

He blamed council inefficiency and a refusal to collaborate with independent providers for heaping pressure on social care.

"Frankly, the monies of families in Suffolk shouldn't be the weapon with which some council official tries to win a star from John Prescott," said Mr Yeo.

"The county council has a duty, particularly towards the poorer people in Suffolk, to use its resources more carefully and to keep tax increases down to a reasonable level."

Members of the council's executive committee meeting will be asked on February 11 to recommend the budget proposals to the full council on February 27.

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