Thursday, 24 January 2013

Council Cuts and Council Tax

Here's the uncut version of my letter to the Weston Mercury (published with some cuts today) in response to their article last week on the proposed council tax increase. If you want to know what they cut, it's the part in the last paragraph referring to the government's austerity programme and dismantling the welfare state.

"I write in response to your article on the likely increase in council tax this year. The article states that the reason North Somerset Council are proposing a council tax increase is because of unfavourable government grant funding. It may well be the case that North Somerset Council has been historically underfunded by central government, but the reason the council are proposing a council tax increase this year, is because of massive cuts to their funding from central government, which are part of the government’s failed austerity programme. In North Somerset these cuts amount to £86 million over the period 2011 to 2018 – this is about half the council’s spending on services. So let’s be clear - the Coalition government’s public spending cuts are being passed to local authorities across the country to implement. Increases in council tax are not about unfair funding, they are about massive public spending cuts. Cuts, which the Coalition government seem to think that councils can implement with a few back office efficiencies, when in fact the cuts are so severe that front line services already have been and will continue to be cut – youth services are an example in North Somerset.

So why are the council considering a council tax increase this year, and haven’t done so in the previous 2 years, since the cuts began in 2011? The reason is that in 2011 and 2012 the government offered councils a bribe to keep council tax frozen – they called it a council tax freeze grant. This grant was an equivalent amount of money to that which councils would have got if they’d increased council tax by up to 2.5%. It seemed like a good deal at the time. The problem with this was that whereas an actual council tax increase would stay in their budget for every year there after, the council tax freeze grants were for one or a few years only. And all these freeze grants will disappear from council budgets in 2015, leaving massive budget holes – in North Somerset’s case that will amount to about £4 million less in their budget than they would have had if they’d actually increased council tax.

This year the government have offered councils a 1% council tax freeze grant, and councils across the country, including North Somerset, have realised that this is no longer a good deal, particularly given that the rate of inflation is currently around 3%. Councils have realised that if they don’t start increasing council tax by very small amounts now, they will have massive holes in their budgets by 2015 and this in turn will make way above inflation council tax increases necessary in future years – the alternative would be even greater cuts. If you think your wages haven’t kept up with prices, then exactly the same is true of councils’ budgets as a result of the council tax freeze grants. As a result this year councils across the country have no option but to increase council tax in order to protect the vital public services, which they deliver to the most vulnerable people in our society.

So, when your council tax bill arrives this year, think about why the council have had no option but to increase it. Think about the services you receive if you have children, if you have elderly or disabled relatives, or if you are old and disabled yourself. Think about the government’s austerity programme, which has failed to reduce the deficit, has choked off economic growth, and is hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. Think about a government that is using public spending cuts to dismantle the safety net we call the welfare state. If you’re unhappy with the council tax increase blame the Coalition government, and do something about it by either writing to your MP, joining your local Anti-Cuts campaign group, or making your opposition known in some other way. In fact, let’s have a referendum on council tax increases and the government’s public spending cuts."

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