Poll: Is your council planning to freeze council tax bills next year?
Around half of Norfolk and north Suffolk’s local authorities look set to accept a government offer to freeze council tax bills next year.
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles yesterday announced continued financial support totalling £450m to help councils avoid passing on rising costs for the year 2013/14.
Not all councils have welcomed the funding, however, equivalent to a one per cent rise, pointing to the potential for steeper rises being required in future, the below-inflation rate and extra regulations that move power away from locally-elected councillors.
Norfolk and Suffolk County Councils have both made clear their intentions to freeze their share of the council tax bill, as have South Norfolk Council, North Norfolk District Council and Broadland District Council.
Others, including Norwich City Council, Breckland Council, Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Fenland District Council in Cambridgeshire have yet to make a decision on the cash offer, and all will need to formally approve the plans next year.
Harry Humphrey, Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for finance and performance, confirmed the council was budgeting for no increase as it faced “unprecedented change”.
“We know that many households in Norfolk remain under considerable financial pressure from rising costs and bills.”
But he added that the tax freeze funding should be ongoing “since, without that, local authorities will be left to pick up the shortfall when the grant ceases.
“We must not forget that Norfolk has also suffered the ‘damping’ of our grant for years, which has affected us badly,” he said.
Suffolk County Council’s Mark Bee announced a third successive year without a rise, saying it was councillors’ “moral and professional duty to do everything we can to keep delivering quality public services without asking people for more money”.
But Alan Waters, deputy leader of Norwich City Council, said the government’s offer was “a smoke and mirrors act”.
He said: “A one-off grant really doesn’t help much – however you cut it, it means more pressure on councils. A one per cent grant leaves us under pressure with inflation running at three times that.”
Freezing council tax repeatedly, leaving the budget base to stagnate, could lead to councils looking at even greater rises in the future, he said.
“We have to look at the medium to long-term – not just the immediate financial year.”
He added: “This inducement doesn’t help this council or any other in the country in meeting demand for services or stabilising budgets.”
Any council seeking to raise council tax by more than 2pc must go to a public referendum, attracting extra cost and possible delays in billing taxpayers.
Breckland Council leader William Nunn said the issue would be discussed alongside the results of a recent public budget consultation, but that Breckland’s low starting point meant it would be disadvantaged by the referendum trigger.
He said: “Although it’s absolutely right to keep the council tax low, when you are the lowest in the country there’s quite a disparity and at this stage where the government is holding it down across the board it puts Breckland in a disproportionately worse position than we would have been.”
Great Yarmouth Borough Council leader Trevor Wainwright said the grant offer had come “out of the blue” but would be assessed as the council looks to make £10m of savings over three years.
Keith Johnson, leader of North Norfolk District Council, said it was “absolutely our intention to freeze council tax if possible”, while Broadland District Council leader Andrew Proctor said the council’s previous efficiency savings would permit a third freeze in succession.
At South Norfolk Council, leader John Fuller said councillors were facing “the prospect of a freeze in six out of seven years”, and that reserves would not be required.
West Norfolk council leader Nick Daubney said the authority hoped to freeze council tax as it had for a number of years but could not make a decision until the government had revealed its revenue support settlement.
In Suffolk, Forest Heath District Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council both said they would examine the proposals but could not yet make a decision.
Waveney District Council has frozen its share of Council Tax for the past two years, as has Mid Suffolk District Council.