Failed bid to block council tax rise ‘grandstanding’

By Gavin McEwan   |   Local Democracy Reporter   |
Wednesday 16th February 2022 12:00 pm
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A bid to block a proposed 3 per cent rise in Herefordshire’s council tax from April has narrowly failed after an intense debate.

Herefordshire’s ruling Independents and Greens coalition has since accused the Conservative group on the council of “grandstanding” over its late amendment to block the rise within the council’s draft budget on Friday (February 11).

This foresees a 1 per cent rise in the “precept” ring-fenced to provide adult social care services, and a further 1.99 per cent increase in core council tax to fund all other council services.

Under government rules, this is the largest permissible increase without a referendum.

Councillor Liz Harvey, who as cabinet member for finance was responsible for drafting the budget, said: “This adds 95p a week to a band D property’s council tax, and £1.90 for anyone fortunate enough to live in a band H property.”

The rise compares favourably with inflation, which “is forecast to rise to 7 per cent by spring and to continue at this level for some time”, she said, adding that the proposal to freeze it instead was “socially irresponsible and fiscally illiterate”.

Seconding the budget, council leader David Hitchiner said the increase would “enable the council to continue to support the vulnerable and shape the kind of society that the current administration has a vision for”.

The rise compares favourably with those proposed in neighbouring Conservative-controlled authorities, he said, adding: “A rise of any less is storing up problems for the future. A council that adopts a 0 per cent increase will not be respected.”

Proposing the freeze, Conservative chair of the council’s audit and governance committee Cllr Nigel Shaw said: “This year sees such a unique set of circumstances, that we should do what we can to reduce the burden on our residents.”

Conservative group leader Cllr Jonathan Lester said: “We need to focus on what the council’s function is without burdening the taxpayers of Herefordshire. Can we expect taxpayers to bear increases year in year out without pausing for reflection?

“We all agree that we need the 2.99 per cent increase to balance the budget. The fundamental question is where that money comes from – the taxpayer or the monies set aside? A nil increase be done, and the time to do it is when households are facing tremendous pressures from increasing costs.”

Also opposing the rise, Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Terry James said: “It’s only recently that we’ve had council tax increases above inflation – that can’t go on. We may even be putting more people into defaulting on paying. Reserves are for a rainy day.”

The True Independents group also backed the freeze.

But Cllr Harrington, group leader for Independents for Herefordshire, said: “After over a decade of austerity we are no longer cutting fat away but are having to cut into bone.

“I urge all councillors today not to debase the serious business of setting a budget today with party or group grandstanding. Not putting up council tax: it’s not just daft, it’s reckless and dangerous.”

He added: “I wish our two MPs were in the room today to explain their voting record on government cuts to funding for Herefordshire.

“All the things that our residents complain about – the potholes, the dirty signs, the shabby town streets, the closed footpaths and bridges, the roof dropping out of the Shire Hall, the threats to our libraries to social care, the cuts to buses – all can be laid squarely at the foot of austerity.

“It is an absolute disgrace and an abdication of responsibility for which our representatives at Westminster should be thoroughly ashamed.”

Greens group leader Cllr Ellie Chowns said: “Council tax isn’t the reason why people are currently struggling. They are struggling because of rising inflation, the increase in National Insurance and the rise in the fuel price cap.”

Taking money out of the council’s hardship fund instead “would primarily benefit those in larger homes – it’s a regressive move”, she said, adding that the previous Conservative administration “brought in higher council tax rises while inflation was low”.

With the Independents for Herefordshire and Green coalition running a minority administration, the vote required support of other members.

In the event, three LibDem members were among the 27 who voted against the proposed freeze, with 22 councillors voting for it.

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