Cambs Council Tax bills look set to rise 2.95%

LAST year’s freeze on Council Tax increases looks well and truly over as local authorities and emergency services thumb their noses at a new “bribe” from Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.

A year ago, all Cambridgeshire’s principal councils, along with the police and fire service, accepted the equivalent in extra grant of a 2.5 per cent increase in their Council Tax precept in exchange for freezing the tax.

The cash sum was to be paid for each of the following four years – unlike this year’s one-year deal, which has cut no ice with Cambridgeshire politicians.

With only the fire service’s recommendation yet to be announced, Council Tax bills across the county look set to go up by around three per cent from April – but even that will leave them among the lowest in England.

Apart from Huntingdonshire District Council’s planned 3.5 per cent rise on less than 10 per cent of the total, increases of just under three per cent are planned by Cambridgeshire County Council – which accounts for around three-quarters of Council Tax bills – and the county’s police authority. Parish council increases, if any, will vary widely but form only a small proportion of the total in most parishes.

The county council’s leader, Cllr Nick Clarke, who got backing from his cabinet yesterday (Tuesday), told The Hunts Post that accepting the ‘Pickles promise’ would have led to sharper spending cuts in 2012/13 and larger rises in the pretext in subsequent year, a point mirrored by the other authorities.

Key to the county’s budget proposals are protecting the adult social care budget at nearly �190m, spending an extra �90m on the county’s secondary road network over five years – including �33m in 2012/13 – providing an extra �100,000 for carers, and investing �610m over five years on capital projects, mostly outside Huntingdonshire.

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The capital investment will help fund a new railway station at Chesterton, north of Cambridge on the Fen Line, a southern bypass of Ely, which has been a gleam in the eye for decades, and rolling out high-speed broadband across rural areas that commercial providers ignore.

Chesterton station would pay for itself in five-to-seven years in contributions from train operators, and several other parties would contribute towards the cost of the Ely bypass, Cllr Clarke said.

“We are a low-tax, lean council,” he said. “When I became leader [in May 2011], I looked for chunks of fat to cut, but they’re just not there.”

As far as the ‘Pickles promise’ for 2012/13 was concerned, some councils, typically Labour-controlled authorities in the North of England, might benefit. “For us it would mean a shortfall in our funding for 2013/14. And people say they would be happy to pay a little more to protect services.”

That assertion reflects the views of 53 per cent of just over 400 households interviewed face-to-face, in addition to some others who completed a complex on-line matrix to assess public views of councillors’ spending options.

A higher increase in the precept would risk exposing the county to having to spend �500,000 on conducting a referendum of around 400,000 electors and further costs of re-billing if the council lost the vote.

“We want to do bold things in a measured way, and 2.95 per cent equates to around �30 more for a Band D (benchmark) property, and additional �8m revenue every year,” Cllr Clarke said.

The council’s non-schools budget is set to rise from �460m to �472m if the increase is approved, first by Cllr Clarke’s cabinet colleagues and then by the full council later this month. CCC has already planned spending cuts totalling �540m over five years to 2014/15.

The county’s Liberal Democrats gave the proposed budget a mixed reaction, while Labour said it would cost more than 150 jobs on top of nearly 400 that had already gone.

Liberal Democrat Leader, Kilian Bourke praised the controlling Conservatives’ espousal of several Lib Dem proposals, such as on social services and transport, but said it was hypocritical to be cutting jobs at the same time as making provision to increase allowances by an aggregate �100,000.

The opposition group is promising an alternative budget later this month, based on the same increase in precept.

Labour group leader Tariq Sadiq said the increase would hit hard-pressed families but was a ‘slap in the face’ for Eric Pickles.

“Not even a Conservative-controlled Council like Cambridgeshire will accept his Council Tax bribe, which would have left the county council with a �30m hole in its budget,” he said.

“Another �43m will be cut from the county’s budget next year and 154 full-time jobs will be lost on top of the 381 that have already gone.”