The Times reports(£) this morning that the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, is considering lowering the level of Council Tax increases that are permitted without a referendum being called – from two per cent down to 1.5 per cent. Those councils that cut or freeze Council Tax are provided with extra funding equivalent to one per cent of their Council Tax revenue. So if the lower threshold was applied then the extra revenue a council would be left with for a 1.5 per cent rise would be just 0.5 per cent.
Brighton and Hove Council, which has a minority Green Party administration, is proposing a 4.7 per cent Council Tax rise so that would require a referendum under either threshold. However they would first need to persuade a majority of councillors to vote for it. The Conservative councillors are supporting a Council Tax freeze.What about the Labour councillors? They would “not support such a huge increase” which leaves it unclear whether they would support any increase at all.
Of course if I was a councillor in Brighton and Hove I would not vote for any Council Tax increase. But there is something rather heroic about the Green Party wishing to take their chances with a referendum rather than diving for cover with a democracy dodging 1.99 per cent increases (or, we now have cause to hope, 1.49 per cent.)
Incidentally the claim that the referendum in Brighton and Hove would cost £100,000 seems high. It would be held on the same day as the Euro Elections so no extra polling stations need to open. You are really only talking about the printing costs of the ballot papers. Council staff could take a few hours off to count them. I would have thought you could knock a nought off the end of the £100,000. Nor would there need to be re-billing in the event of the 4.7 per cent rise being rejected. Council Taxpayers would receive a rebate at the end of the financial year. We frequently hear council leaders claim they could win a referendum but don’t wish to hold them merely due to the cost.Such claims are not convincing.
I wonder how much Labour-run Nottinghamshire County Council spent on their alternative version of democracy. They had a consultation exercise, 6,000 took part, with 45 per cent backing a 1.99 per cent rise. Options for bigger increases got less support. But there was no option available in the consultation for a Council Tax freeze, let alone a Council Tax cut.
A cut in the threshold to 1.5 per cent would be thoroughly welcome. If a council feels that increase is too low then let them take their case to their residents.
The next reform should be a referendum trigger – where a minimum number of signatures are achieved – for a Council Tax cut. If five per cent of residents, over a one year period, can sign a petition for a directly elected Mayor, then why shouldn’t the same arrangement apply to securing a Council Tax reduction?