Suffolk tax ise lowest ever
By Graham DinesPolitical EditorSUFFOLK'S council tax rise next year will be below inflation for first time – just 2.9% – but councillors last night insisted it was not a sweetener ahead of county elections in four months time.
By Graham Dines
THE tax rise levied by Suffolk County Council next year will be just 2.9%, below inflation for first time.
But councillors insisted last night it was not a sweetener ahead of county elections in four months' time.
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Two years after imposing a record 18.5% increase, Suffolk County Council's ruling Labour and Liberal Democrat administration will go into May's election campaign boasting of financial prudence after making savings of £10.4million.
From April, householders in average band D properties will have to pay £951.64 a year for county council services such as schools, social care, roads, libraries and public protection - an increase of £27.26.
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But added to this will be council tax charges from borough and district councils, the police authority and parish or town councils.
David Rowe, the county council's portfolio holder for strategic and financial planning, said: “Our rise is lower than the pension increase of 3.1% and less than the retail price index inflation rate of 3.5%.
“It means people will have more money in their pockets as a result of the tough financial regime we have put in place.
“We have listened to the concerns of householders after the big tax rise two years ago. People want lower increases, but also frontline services maintained. We have achieved both.”
However Tory politicians hit back, with South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo saying it was “frankly insulting” to pensioners to say they should be grateful for a low rise after imposing double-figure increases in previous years.
“This 2.9% rise in no way compensates pensioners and those on fixed incomes for the savage rises of previous years. There's unlikely to be dancing in the streets,” he said.
Jeremy Pembroke, opposition leader on the council, added: “This is the administration that increased tax two years' ago by 18.5%. That fact will never go away.
“If they could bring in a low increase now, why not before instead of inflicting financial suffering on the people of Suffolk?”
Mr Rowe insisted that if he had been electioneering, he would have raided the authority's reserves to impose a low or zero increase.
“However, after the election when no doubt we will be re-elected, we would have had to put that money back, which would mean massive future rises in tax. We would have been guilty of irresponsible short-termism,” he said.
Praising Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown for the extra help he had given councils, Mr Rowe added: “The Government's settlement this year will help an already strong financial position, which the Audit Commission acknowledged in its rating of excellent for the county council.”
The council is investing some of its savings to help pay for street wardens in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft (£120,000), extra social workers, advocates and support workers for patients with mental health problems (£387,000) and seven family support workers to help recruit, train and support foster carers (£350,000).
Among capital projects set to get the go-ahead are an extension for Felixstowe Library (£1.01m), new primary schools in Rendlesham (£2.2m) and Ipswich (£1.25m), Martlesham children's home (£275,000), improvements to Kesgrave Library (£49,000), and Curriers Lane community education centre in Ipswich (£360,000).
Council tax campaigner Reg Hartles, chairman of Protest Against Council Taxes Suffolk, conceded the rise “could be a lot worse”.
He added: “They're not off the hook. When you look at the previous two years the rises have been 22.3% - zero would have been a fairer result.
“If it's 2.9% now, how can they justify a rise of 18.5% two years ago? Nobody would be worrying about 2.9% today if they hadn't hit us with 18.5% two years ago.
“The council has had more than its pound of flesh in the past, so maybe this is their conscience. But, of course, we've got to see what the police authority and the district councils want before we really find out what we're going to be taxed.”
n Council tax to pay for Ipswich Borough Council services will rise by 2.4% from April, the lowest increase of any authority in Suffolk.
Leaders of the joint Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration confirmed
last night that the average band D householder's bill will increase by £7.11 a year.
In October, the two parties ousted Labour from power after 26 years and John Carnell, executive committee member in charge of finance, said: “After just four months, we have ended the ever-spiralling tax increases of the previous Labour-run council.
“We have not cut services and through good financial management we have kept our promise that council tax would rise below the rate of inflation.”
The new council tax for band D properties in the Ipswich borough is £275.85, to which must be added the charges from Suffolk County Council and the police authority.