For the second year in a row, the Government is stumping up extra cash to help support a council tax freeze. A two year freeze was a key Conservative pledge made before the 2010 general election, first announced by George Osborne at the 2008 Party Conference. Conservatives are delivering on our election promises.
I’m delighted to say that initial indications suggest that this offer is proving popular among local authorities. It’s very early days in the council budget setting process, but over 140 and counting have already said they are likely to take it up. A few, including Hammersmith and Fulham, South Oxfordshire and Windsor and Maidenhead, are looking to go even further and deliver a cash terms tax cut.
As predicted back in 2008, some Labour authorities, led unsurprisingly by the wasteful and secretive Nottingham City Council, seem ideologically determined to shut their ears to their local residents and hike up the rates out of political spite.
This Government is determined to protect the public from the exorbitant tax rises of the Labour years. During Labour's time in office, council tax more than doubled whilst frontline services like bin collections were halved. People deserve better.
Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government is determined to stand up for hard-working families and pensioners. We’ve scrapped Labour’s expensive and intrusive council tax revaluation, which would have forced up tax bills for millions of homes. We’ve scrapped Labour’s new bin taxes, which would have fuelled fly-tipping and backyard burning. Last year’s council tax freeze stopped tax rises of up to £72 on a Band D home. This year’s freeze now offers a similar saving.
In the Localism Act, we scrapped Whitehall capping and replaced it with direct democracy – giving new powers to local communities to stand firm against large council tax rises, unless and except there is a local majority in favour. This year, any rise in council tax above 3.5% will trigger a local referendum. In other words, if your council wanted to raise council tax 3.6%, they’d need most of your neighbours to vote “yes.”
If people do vote yes, then that is their choice, and I would not dream of standing in their way. That’s what localism is all about. But let’s look at those councils who aren’t taking up our offer of a freeze. They tend to be saying that they plan a rise of around 3.40% (Nottingham City), 3.49% (Stoke-on-Trent), 3.5% (Brighton and Hove, for example)…. but none above that barrier. Funny, that. Could it be that they think local people would vote “no” if they had the chance?
Hard-working families are planning their household finances carefully, counting the pounds and pennies at the end of the month. At a time when public and private sector workers are facing pay freezes, the last thing they need is to see their council tax bill get bigger, piling up the pressures and stress. Council finance officers may want to fill their town hall coffers. Yet the last thing any councillor with his or her heart in the right place should want to do is to put up local taxes now. Instead, we need to provide real help now to families’ cost of living.
Ultimately, this is a moral question. Councils can show they are in tune with what communities need: look after their residents, keep bills down for local families, and give hard-working people a much-needed break. Or they can give them an almighty kick in the teeth when bills land on the doormat this April.
When the Government’s offer is on the table, increasing council tax at this time is wrong. For Conservatives across local government, this is a significant opportunity to show how our councils continue to deliver lower council taxes and provide better, value for money services.
And if councils try and sneak through a rise without a public vote this year, then they deserve everything they get next time residents do get a chance to have a say where it really counts: the ballot box.