COUNCIL tax in the conurbation will not rise above the two per cent cap despite a potential loophole, the Joint Committee says.

At its last meeting the committee, set up to lay the groundwork for a new unitary authority in the area in May 2019, agreed that in its efforts to equalise council tax it will freeze or reduce rates in Christchurch and allow no rise higher than 1.99 per cent in Bournemouth and Poole, beyond which a local referendum is required by law.

Band D taxpayers in the latter two towns currently pay some £200 less per year than Christchurch residents.

A potential loophole to this pledge would see the Government allow the new unitary council to calculate its tax rate from an 'alternative notional amount' (ANA) rather than the previous year's tax in each borough, allowing a larger increase without triggering a referendum.

Indeed the report to the committee's first meeting states that the Department for Communities and Local Government "has advised that in order for harmonisation to take place an ANA will be required for each preceding council".

It states: "Therefore, whilst the increase when measured against the ANA would be below the referendum limit the ANA could in fact be higher than the actual 2018/19 council tax.

"This would mean that the actual increase between 2018/19 and 2019/20 could be greater than the referendum limit but not actually trigger a requirement to hold a referendum."

However Councillor Janet Walton, committee chairman and leader of Poole council, said members were not looking at any options for tax 'harmonisation' which incorporated an ANA.

"The task and finish group looking at models for council tax harmonisation is focusing on options that are consistent with the committee’s resolution on November 21, that are within existing council tax referendum limits and that see a freeze or reduction to council tax in Christchurch," she said.

"These do not therefore include any options that require an alternative notional amount.

"They will report back on their progress at the next meeting on December 15."

There remain a couple of provisos to this pledge however. The Government, which is due to make a final decision on the plans in January, may impose an ANA if it wishes. Also, decisions made by the Joint Committee are not binding on the new unitary.