Among the Government’s achievements has been keeping down the level of Council Tax. There has been carrot and stick involved in this. The carrot has been that each year if a local authority budgets to freeze (or reduce) the Council Tax they will get an extra dollop of grant from central Government. The stick hanging over those coucnils itching to put up tax has been placed in the hands of local residents. If the increase proposed is above a modest level – this year it was set at tow per cent – then that would trigger a local referendum. The people have a veto.
The Labour Party have not proposed to end the Council Tax referendum. That is welcome that they have accepted the principle – not that the Labour Party in Wales have chosen to apply it.
From 1997-98 to 2010-11, average Band D Council Tax in Wales soared from £495 to £1,127 – a rise of 128 per cent. These rises were even greater than those faced in England (of up 109 per cent). Since 2010, the Welsh Government has refused to freeze council tax, despite the UK Government’s passing on Barnett consequential funding for a council tax freeze in Wales.
Then we had that notorious statement from Labour’s Leighton Andrews last year:
“When drawing up budget plans for 2015-16, I expect local authorities to take account of all their income streams such as council tax and income from fees and charges… We offer considerable flexibility to authorities in Wales which is not available to their counterparts in England, where restrictive freezes apply.”
That is hardly a plea for restraint. It came from the Minister for Public Services in the Welsh Government.
Anyway in England, although not in Wales, the Labour Party policy favours the referendum veto on Council Tax rises above a certain level. That still leaves the rather important detail, from the pont of view of the English Council Taxpayer, on where to set the threshold. What would there be to stop the new communities and local Government Secretary Hilary Benn announcing later this year that Labour had kept their promise but there had been an adjustment? There would be a requirement for a referendum. But the threshold had been adjusted from two per cent to three per cent. Or to five per cent. Or to ten per cent. Or to 50 per cent.
Or perhaps there might be coalition negotiations between Labour and the Lib Dems.
That would offer still less comfort to Council Taxpayers. The Lib Dem manifesto does not even pretend to have regard for their interests in this regard. It is a cunningly lengthy document – desoigned more for negotiators after the election than the electorate before hand.
But scroll down to page 136 and there it is. The Lib Dems pledge to “remove the requirement to hold local referenda for council tax changes”. Last year we had Stephen Williams, a Lib Dem Minister at the DCLG declare: “A referendum on tax rises is absurd.”
So while Conservatives are proud of holding down Council Tax, a policy which helps the poorest the most, this is something Lib Dems are ashamed of. Furthermore the Lib Dems don’t think voters are to be trusted. At least their policy is clear. Labour pretend to support the policy – but would make it worthless by caving in to the Local Government Association when it came to deciding the figures.