Farce as OAP tax rebate plan sinks

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Moves to give Norfolk pensioners a council tax discount turned to farce after Labour group leader Irene Macdonald was forced to pull the plug on her party's plans at the last minute.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Moves to give Norfolk pensioners a council tax discount turned to farce after Labour group leader Irene Macdonald was forced to pull the plug on her party's plans at the last minute.

The Tory-run county council yesterday rubber-stamped a 4.75pc hike in its slice of council tax, which would see Band D bills rising by £47.70 a year to £1,052.10, while band B bills will rise to £808.30.

The overall tax bill will be even higher once the police authority, district and parish councils have added their shares.

The plan included an extra £1.7m boost for frontline services for the elderly and children, plus road repairs.

And the county was setting aside £120,000 to pay the Environment Agency to complete upgrading work for flood defences between Eccles and Winterton.

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All three opposition groups proposed lower increases, with the Liberal Democrats producing a detailed alternative budget, including calls to introduce a young people's travelcard, and the Greens outlining their ideas for an innovative climate change mitigation fund.

But the run-up to the meeting had been dominated by the Labour proposal to give pensioners a £30 rebate. Ms Macdonald, who had announced on Saturday she was putting forward an “innovative plan” to help pensioners, was left red-faced after admitting she could not bring a proposal to the table.

The meeting, which stretched for nearly six hours, descended into farce as she attempted to get the administration to consider and debate a proposal which she had not made. She was forced to call for a five-minute adjournment in an attempt to clarify the party's position.

But many in the chamber were baffled after Labour became lost in rules and procedures for most of the afternoon - and was still attempting minor amendments to the Tory plans more than five hours later.

Ms Macdonald, whose budget speech was met by a stony silence from her own side, cast a lonely figure by the end as only nine of her group remained in the chamber.

Last night, she said she took a gamble by going public on the proposal before receiving advice from officers on whether it could be considered. In fact, it was only on Sunday that she learned that it could not be.

The episode may well raise questions about her future as group leader. Lib Dem councillor Tim East dismissed Labour's plans as a “headline-grabbing stunt”, while the Tories said the party was guilty of spin.

“It is wholly disingenuous to float this idea in the press when it can't possibly be implemented as part of budget proposals,” Mr East said. “The people of Norfolk have been duped.”

In fact, the authority had already looked into the issue of discounts in 2003 and had ruled it was not feasible.

However, Ms Macdonald insisted she was right to press ahead with the plans,which her group considered on January 29, less than a month before the set-piece budget debate.

And she pointedly sidestepped questions about her future as leader.

“I would say this was a gamble,” she said. “We put our chips on the table, but the wheel hasn't spun in favour of introducing a pensioners' discount scheme. What we have done is kickstart a debate.

“I am obviously not going to comment on what the Labour group is going to do. Life happens, but I'm a strong and visionary leader who has been successful and has led a district council for four years.”

She added: “We learn, we plan, we fight another day.”

Conservative leader Shaun Murphy said the administration's plans reflected more than a year of detailed planning which saw extra resources being targeted to frontline services for children, adults and roads maintenance.

And he accused Labour of coming up with a “bits and pieces” budget.

“This budget will make a real difference to the services we provide for the frail and vulnerable, recognise the contribution that highways maintenance makes in helping to reduce deaths on our roads and improve travel and transport,” he said.