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UPDATED: Poole council set to "dodge democracy" by raising council tax
POOLE council is likely to put up its council tax by 1.95 per cent this year – incurring the wrath of cabinet minister Eric Pickles.
The communities secretary has hit out at councils which set rises just under two per cent – the figure that would force them to put the rise to a referendum - accusing them of "dodging democracy".
Mr Pickles said "those who put up their stealth tax by 1.99 per cent in a bid to avoid our two per cent referendum threshold need a reality check''.
But Borough of Poole leader Cllr Elaine Atkinson has joined other Conservative council leaders in rounding on the secretary.
Cllr Atkinson said the council had budgeted for an increase of 1.95 per cent.
She said the council was the fourth worst funded unitary authority in the country and received 44 per cent less in grants than the average unitary authority.
“We’ve got the lowest council tax in Dorset for a band D property. Even if we increase council tax, we would still be the lowest council tax for a band D property,” she said.
She said of Mr Pickles' comments: “It’s exasperating. I as leader of the council and leaders of other councils are making representations to Mr Pickles about his sweeping statements.
“Austerity is being delivered by local authorities, it isn’t being delivered from Whitehall, it’s being delivered in local towns and cities.”
The government has required councils who want to put up their share of the tax by more than two per cent to call a referendum. Mr Pickles says some are planning to put up the tax by 1.99 per cent, or increase the waste and transport elements which lawyers say may not be covered by the cap.
Bournemouth council is hoping to freeze its council tax when it sets the budget next month, its leader has said.
Cllr John Beesley told the Daily Echo: “I hope and expect Bournemouth's financial position will be good enough to resist any increase in council tax.”
The council has frozen its share of the tax bill for the last two years.
He stressed that the police and fire share of the bill would rise.
“It isn't the whole of the bill that's determined by the local council. The fire and police precepts are a part of the council tax bill,” he said.
“The police have already indicated they will be putting that up by close to the limit. The government have given Dorset Fire Authority permission to raise their precept by far more than the two per cent - something like eight per cent.
“Mr Pickles' own department have given them permission to do that.”
Cllr Beesley added: “Residents need to be aware that the government have cut our grant funding by near 30 per cent in the space of four years.
“Local government is a fine example of how to deal with an efficiency and transformation agenda without cutting services. The government would have a great deal to learn from the way that Bournemouth in particular has managed that process.”
Mr Pickles said of this year's bills that ''those who put up their stealth tax by 1.99 per cent in a bid to avoid our two per cent referendum threshold need a reality check''.
''We will take into consideration anybody cheating their taxpayers,'' he said. ''Anybody using loopholes will lose out next year.''
He went on: ''What residents really want is cuts to taxes not bin collections; potholes filled not pockets. Councils that put their people first will get the idea.”
Cllr Spencer Flower, cabinet member for resources at Dorset County Council, said the county was likely to freeze council tax.
“I think all the signs are that we will probably freeze it although I also think it’s up to members to make that judgement. I don’t think it’s helpful at all that Eric Pickles feels it’s appropriate to stick an oar in,” he said.
He said the two per cent rule was a clear boundary and Mr Pickles could not complain when councils set rises of 1.99 per cent.
“It’s only the rule he’s set. I don’t think it’s a loophole at all,” he said.
“All local government has been through the mill to help central government deal with the financial deficit.”
He said if this year’s budget was approved, the council would have saved around £60million a year from a budget of around £300m since the spending squeeze began. “In very proud of what we’ve managed achieve with a minimum impact on communities,” he added.
And he said East Dorset District Council, which he leads, had saved £2.25m against an expected £1.5m by working more closely with Christchurch.
“If central government had achieved as much as local government, we’d have made a bigger debt in the national deficit,” he added.
Dorset’s chief fire officer Darren Gunter said the rules allowed authorities who were in the bottom quartile for council tax to put up their bills by up to £5 a year. That would equate to an eight per cent rise.
He said a freeze in council tax would mean a cut to front-line services. The authority had been consulting the public and its recommendations on what to do about council tax would be made public on February 14.
He said the service had suffered a 14 per cent cut in government grant. “We haven’t put up council tax for the last two years,” he said.