Voters will judge council tax claims

THE UK's increasing elderly population and those on fixed income hate one tax burden above all others - council tax, which accounts for up to 25% of pensioner household expenditure as, year after year, above inflation rises are piled on by local councils without any thought on how they are to be repaid.

THE UK's increasing elderly population and those on fixed income hate one tax burden above all others - council tax, which accounts for up to 25% of pensioner household expenditure as, year after year, above inflation rises are piled on by local councils without any thought on how they are to be repaid.

Councils blame the Government for not giving them enough grants. Ministers counter by forcing local authorities to reduce services under the threat of compulsory capping if tax rises go above a certain limit.

It was the 2003 set of rises which caused the biggest furore, when county councils of all hues jacked up tax by 15-20%, claiming Labour had diverted cash from the south and east to prop up its power bases in the north and midlands.

So when politicians start playing the blame game at local election time, just who are those affected by this regressive tax meant to believe?

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For starters, it was the Tories who devised the tax to replace the hated poll tax. But since 1997, the Conservatives have accused Labour of using it as a stealth tax as more and more bureaucracy is placed on local government.

When Labour launched its local election manifesto, the Prime Minister claimed that “the average council tax in the country is lower under Labour than under the Liberal Democrat or Conservative authorities. We have got to keep it that way - and we will.”

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Caroline Spelman, the Tories spokesman for local government, would have none of that. She said Labour's spin doctors were using “creative calculations” to hide the fact that their councils still charge more - Labour talked about average tax bills within a local authority area rather than comparing how much town halls levied per council tax band.

Using the Band D calculator, the highest council tax in the country is Sedgefield in Tony Blair's constituency at £1,490 (with a Labour district and county council). By contrast, the lowest is Conservative-run Wandsworth at £648 on Band D (of which £289 is the Labour-set GLA levy).

“The only fair way to compare council tax bills is to contrast Band D with Band D. On average, Conservative councils charge £81 a year less on Band D bills than Labour councils and £88 a year less than Liberal Democrats.

“The message is pure and simple - Conservative councils cost you less, while delivering better public services,” said Mrs Spelman.

As for the Liberal Democrat, they've trotted out their perennial policy of replacing council tax “with a fair tax” based on ability to pay. “A local income tax wouldn't need complicated benefits and rebates. It would be affordable for people on low or fixed incomes. Only the Lib Dems are committed to axing this unfair tax once and for all,” says the party's local elections manifesto.

This sounds like paradise for pensioners, but two income families would end up paying more than now.

But that's the point - someone has to pay for swimming pools, mobile libraries, adult social care, and mending pot holes in the streets. Either central taxation goes up, or it has to be found locally.

The innate unfairness of council tax is driving the Government's reform of local government. Unitary government ends duplication of services and is cheaper that funding county and district councils.

Expect a “save our county councils” campaign to be launched later this year - but don't be surprised if pensioners - even life long Tories - fail to turn up to man the barricades.

WHEN new right of centre parties are formed across Europe, they are often accused of being a haven for “racists” who cannot get their voice heard in mainstream parties.

The latest attack comes from new Tory leader David Cameron, who this week, branded the UK Independence Party “fruit cakes,” “loonies” and “closet racists.”

It's for voters to judge whether UKIP's policy of pulling Britain out of a “corrupt” European Union makes them “fruit cakes” and “loonies.” I will limit myself to saying that some utterances by its Euro MPs - remember Godfrey Bloom and his infamous remarks about women “failing to clean behind their fridges”? - are eccentric.

But as far as I'm aware, no senior member of UKIP has ever uttered a racist remark in public. And when this newspaper presented the party with evidence that one of its selected parliamentary candidates in Suffolk had expressed some support for the British National Party, he was promptly dumped without any hesitation.

UKIP claims its support comes from across the political spectrum, but it's undeniable that the majority of its supporters are disaffected Conservatives who believe the party has betrayed this country's heritage of independence and standing up the rest of the world.

Mr Cameron is trying to herd UKIP voters back into the Tory chorale. He's backing moves for Tory Euro MPs to withdraw from federalist centre grouping in the European Parliament, but he's obviously wary of the potential damage UKIP can do to the Tories chance in the next General Election.

Brentwood and Ongar MP Eric Pickles, a Tory deputy chairman said it would be “a good thing” for UKIP to distance itself from far-right groups. “A number of organisations, particularly Operation Black Vote, accuse UKIP of spreading hate and bigotry and they say it's not just anti-Europe, it's anti-black, it's anti-minority, anti-immigrants, anti-asylum seekers.”

UKIP's Brentwood constituency chairman Dick Camp countered “Both David Cameron and Eric Pickles have made complete fools of themselves with ill-informed, ill-judged and inflammatory slurs that do them both and their Party no credit. UKIP is not and never has been a racist Party. Indeed, many of our members are former Tories who can no longer support the Conservative Party's confused and contradictory policies on the European Union”.

Incidentally, Mr Cameron's outburst will be more than a little uncomfortable for his chief spin doctor George Eustice, who once stood for UKIP in the European elections!

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