Azara Blog: Cambridgeshire Country Council 2005-6 council tax

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Date published: 2005/01/23

Cambridgeshire Country Council (CCC) is going to increase the council tax in 2005-6 by 3%, 4% or 5%. They are holding public consultations to see what the public think. Unfortunately most public consultations are seriously flawed, since the response is not representative of the public but instead representative only of activists (people with axes to grind).

As part of this process, CCC held a meeting yesterday where a random sample of 50-100 people were invited to attend. This is certainly more representative but not totally representative because obviously activists are more likely to say yes to accepting such an invitation than the general public. But the CCC tried to make that less likely to happen by paying people £50 to attend. (They claimed this actually made the meeting less expensive since less people had to be phoned in order to get enough acceptances.)

So far so good. Unfortunately the meeting provided no real information to the attendees to allow them to make an informed choice. Instead there were presentations from various interested parties (e.g. headmasters of local schools, although because central government dictates how much money is spent on education, the school budget will be the same no matter which of the three options is chosen, so their presence was irrelevant).

Nobody said "if you choose x% then this particular budgetary area will be cut by y%, and that means the following services will be cut", which is the information you need to make an informed decision. There was time in the meeting for a few questions to be asked, but without basic data that is difficult to do sensibly.

Keith Walters, the Tory representative and head of the council, said that 3% was drastic, and 5% was not much of an improvement on 4%, so he recommended 4%. Ian Kidman, the Labour representative, and Alex Reid, the LibDem representative, both said they personally would prefer 5% but that their parties could live with 4% and they were waiting to see what the public consultation produced.

With a 4% increase the typical (Band D) house would have a weekly increase in the bill of 62p and with 5% it would be 78p. To many people in Cambridge this extra 16p would not seem like a big deal. (Driving your car for a minute or two consumes that much in petrol.) (Note, the CCC charge is only one, but the biggest, part of the council tax. There are separate charges for the police, fire and local councils. So the total increase would be slightly higher.)

However the big controversy with the council tax is that it has increased much faster than the rate of inflation the last few years. This is because central government has decided not to increase the income tax rates (except indirectly via indexation). This has become a bit of an election issue since the rate of increase of the state pension has not kept up with the increase in the council tax. There are ways this could be solved (e.g. giving every household with all adults over age 65 a 50% discount, or by increasing the state pension, or by decreasing the council tax by increasing income tax), but currently pensioners pay the same as everyone else and many are suffering. 16p extra a week does mean something to many pensioners.

There will be a national election in May 2005 so the central government this year has decided that in order to avoid controversy, councils will not be allowed to increase the council tax by more than 5% just for this year (hence the upper limit on the choices being considered by the CCC). What a way to run a country.

CCC will almost certainly opt for a 4% increase. The consultation is largely a a waste of time and money.

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