Tax hike in 'population drop' district

TAXPAYERS in Forest Heath face a hike in council tax bills after the district failed to resolve a row over census figures – which claimed the number of residents had plunged by 15,000 in ten years.

By Martin Davey

TAXPAYERS in Forest Heath face a hike in council tax bills after the district failed to resolve a row over census figures – which claimed the number of residents had plunged by 15,000 in ten years.

After months of challenging the latest census figures, members of Forest Heath District Council have begrudgingly accepted that, for now, they have fewer people than previously thought.

Now council members – grappling with a lower Government cash settlement because of the population drop – will meet on Monday to recommend its budgets.

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But it could see each Band D household paying £10 more in the district's share of the Council Tax from April.

The contested results of the 2001 census showed that the district's population had fallen from 70,772 to 55,514 – the equivalent of losing the population of a town the size of Mildenhall.

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In a report to an Extraordinary Corporate Services Committee meeting, chief executive David Burnip said despite meetings with representatives of the Deputy Prime Minister's office and officials from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the council was stuck with the lower population.

And that drop of 22% in the number of people means a Government grant of only 3% (£80,000) more than in the last financial year – not even enough to cover increased Government-imposed expenditure.

"There is no likelihood of the population figure based upon the census being revised in time to affect the grant settlement for 2003/04," Mr Burnip said.

When the figures were released, the council, which covers the towns of Mildenhall, Newmarket and Brandon, immediately challenged the findings.

The council questioned whether the huge numbers of American military personnel, stationed at the Lakenheath and Mildenhall air bases, had been included or even if there had been some confusion over the boundary with neighbouring districts.

Around 20,000 American service personnel and their families live outside the base in the district's towns and villages, using the local facilities and services.

But the ONS remained adamant that its sums had been done correctly.

However, Mr Burnip said council officers would continue to battle to try and change the figures which they are convinced are wrong.

"Whilst no procedural flaw in the work undertaken by the Office of National Statistics to establish the population for the district has been identified at this stage, officers are still pursuing certain queries which need to be resolved.

"Were any significant error to be established at a later stage then … this could be reflected in the estimate which will be utilised in the grant settlement calculations for 2004/05," Mr Burnip said.

John Alexander, the council's strategic director (resources), said the numbers have made the authority re-examine its budgets and, despite a proposed £10 increase in Band D Council Tax to £106.38, there would almost certainly have to be further increases in the future.

He said: "The outlook for Council Tax payers in terms of future Council Tax increases does not look particularly good. Any future expenditure increases, including inflation, would need to be financed through the Council Tax.

"The increase in grant doesn't even cover expenditure like the pay award imposed on us by central Government."

There has never been any clue as to where the people may have gone, it seems though that they did not move into neighbouring districts.

Neighbouring Breckland Council estimated that in 2000 it had a population of 122,200 where the census showed the 2001 population as 121,422 – a difference of only 1%.

And St Edmundsbury Borough Council has had an increase of nearly 6% over the past 10 years to 98,179.

Although, it may be that those 15,000 people never existed in the first place as the 2001 census was the most extensive ever done, with more follow up work that ever before and showed the population as a whole was lower than expected.

A spokesman for the ONS said: "The country as a whole has a population around a million lower than we thought and therefore there will be authorities that have fewer people.

"We are very confident the figures are right."

A decision on Forest Heath's Council Tax will finally be made at a meeting of the full council on February 28.

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