Tax discount for Norfolk OAPs plan

Thousands of hard-up Norfolk pensioners could get a £30 council tax discount to help them to make ends meet, under a radical proposal that will be debated on Monday.

Thousands of hard-up Norfolk pensioners could get a £30 council tax discount to help them to make ends meet, under a radical proposal that will be debated on Monday.

Last night the Tory leaders of Norfolk County Council gave the idea a cool reception - but pensioners' leaders challenged them to “set the country an example” by backing it.

The Labour opposition group at County Hall has proposed that pensioners who are not eligible to council tax relief should have this year's proposed 4.75pc increase cut to 1.75pc - saving them around £30 per year if they live in a band D property.

The idea, which is being introduced in April by Kirklees Metropolitan Council in West Yorkshire, came a few days after the council's scrutiny committee heard that 26,000 Norfolk pensioners were living below the poverty line.

Labour leader Irene Macdonald said: “We want to see Norfolk councillors across the board taking this seriously and doing something for pensioners. It would be a refreshing sign of hope if we could all unite around this idea.

“Whatever happens with the budget overall, we will not let this go and will be pushing for action by the Norfolk Local Government Association with all councils working together.”

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It is believed the scheme could cost around £1m this year. Mrs Macdonald said the Labour group had “found a way to fund it,” but would not give details.

Edith Pocock, secretary of Norfolk and Norwich Pensioners' Association, said: “I think it would be a feather in the cap of the county council if it went ahead with this. It would be a great example to the rest of the nation.”

She added: “Council tax has become a nightmare for so many elderly people. I would say to the county council 'for goodness sake go ahead with this now - you are all going to be old one day'.”

Council leader Shaun Murphy said: “I am not going to pre-empt Monday's budget debate, but I do know that this idea has been looked at in other parts of the country and found to be unworkable for a number of reasons.”

He added that the Labour group should press the government to “fairly fund council services”, and said: “Under a fair funding system, everyone in Norfolk - not just the elderly - could see council tax bills coming down.”

Even if the county council backs the scheme on Monday, getting the go-ahead for a countywide discount is not straightforward.

Any such scheme has to be agreed by the authorities that send out the bills. In Norfolk, that is the seven district councils, which have given it a mixed reception.

On Thursday, a similar proposal by the opposition Labour group at Breckland Council was flatly rejected by the ruling Tories as they agreed their budget.

Norwich City Council leader Steve Morphew said it was a “very positive suggestion”, and added: “Our Labour administration would welcome being part of making it work.”

John Dobson, leader of West Norfolk Council, said: “What a jolly good idea, I'd just wonder how they'd fund it. We would agree and we could afford it but there are issues which would need to be explored, like whether it should be means tested, as some pensioners can obviously afford to pay it.”

Other councils were more lukewarm, however.

Barry Stone, deputy leader of Yarmouth Borough Council, said it had not been discussed and it was “premature” to comment.

And Simon Partridge, leader of North Norfolk District Council, said: “Without knowing the financial implications we can't know whether or not we would support it. But it's an interesting idea and we look forward to finding out more.”

The county council's Liberal Democrat leader Barbara Hacker was sceptical about the proposal, which will be debated as full council votes on the 2007/8 budget on Monday.

She said: “The principal of helping people in need is recognised by everybody, but I'm not sure just helping one select group is the way forward.”