Council tax bills to rise in nine out of 10 English local authorities

Figures are in stark contrast to five years ago when 90% of local authorities froze or cut council tax

Households across the country are facing inflation-busting council tax hikes with nine out of 10 local authorities in England expected to increase rates from April.

Residents in some areas will see their bills go up by as much as 5%, with councils taking full advantage of new powers to top up their charges with fees ringfenced for social care.

Only 22 of England’s 353 local authorities are to freeze council tax in the coming year and just one, East Hampshire, is to reduce the bill.

The figures mark a stark contrast to rate changes five years ago, when 90% of local authorities froze or cut council tax and just 35 raised it. In 2015-16, seven councils cut their council tax rates.

This is the first time that many councils have been able to add 3% to bills to help fund adult social care for their communities. The extra cash can only be spent on social care and cannot be used for other services. Last year the maximum councils could add was fixed at 2%.

The government has said that raising the social care precept to 3% has given councils the ability to raise an additional £208m in 2017-18, but critics have called the levy a “sticking plaster” that is unlikely to meet even the basic needs of communities.

Of the 152 local authorities able to raise bills by up to an extra 3% to fund social care, more than two-thirds are implementing the full amount. The Local Government Association said councils had found themselves “unable to turn down the chance to raise desperately needed money for local services” and warned that increases were unlikely to prevent further cutbacks.

However, the Department for Communities and Local Government said councils had almost £200bn available to them over four years and should be able to deliver “sensible savings to protect frontline services and keep bills down”.

In East Hampshire, where the local authority is due to reduce its charge from April by 2.6%, the leader of the council said he hoped the decision would encourage others to “think completely outside the box”.

Ferris Cowper said the local authority had taken “balanced risks” in bucking the national trend and proving “there is a completely different way of running the public sector”.

He said East Hampshire had been able to make savings in part by making large investment in commercial property including the pursuit of a £35m investment programme.

Cowper said the council was also negotiating a further £200m loan with City brokers to increase its number of commercial properties.

He said: “I really hope that what we’re doing here gives the government a head-scratching problem to solve. I want them to start noticing there is a completely different way of running the public sector.”

Cowper said council tax could be scrapped altogether in East Hampshire by 2021 or at least reduced to a token amount to supplement wider public services such as social care.

Meanwhile Breckland council in Norfolk reported the highest percentage rise of council tax in England at 6.6%.

Among the 22 local authorities to freeze the rate of tax were South Oxfordshire, the London borough of Newham and Wyre Forest in Worcestershire, where the council leader, Marcus Hart, said putting up rates should be a “last resort”.

He said the council was able to freeze the tax by increasing other fees and charges including car parking and bulky waste collections.

“Our narrative is, broadly, council tax payers – we won’t just be using you by putting up council tax just to subsidise other services,” explained Hart.

A lack of local provision to care for elderly residents is one of the causes of so-called “bed blocking” in NHS hospitals, which has been at record levels this winter.

Now the majority of councils are hoping to help alleviate such pressures by adding the 3% social care precept to their bills.

But Tim Roache, general secretary of the public sector GMB union, said the levy was “a sticking plaster on a gaping wound”. He added: “That almost every local authority is being forced to raise council tax to meet even the basic needs of communities up and down the country shows just how far the government have gone in abdicating responsibility for public services.”

Claire Kober, chair of the Local Government Association resources board, said many councils found themselves unable to turn down the chance to raise desperately needed money for local services.

She went on: “Council tax rises are unlikely to prevent the need for continued cutbacks to local services. Cost pressures associated with homelessness and temporary accommodation, and children’s and adult social care, remain particularly acute.”

The chancellor, Philip Hammond, used his budget speech in March to announce a further £2bn additional funding for social care for councils in England between 2017-18 and 2019-20.

The government has said it will also publish a green paper outlining proposals to “put the social care system on a more secure and sustainable long-term footing”.


Hannah Summers

The GuardianTramp

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