The majority of English top-tier councils are planning to raise council tax by the maximum permitted, with the bill for average properties to increase from April by about £100 a year, according to a survey.
Despite widespread concerns over the cost of living crisis, about 75% of the largest authorities have opted so far for the full 4.99% rise, with all but one of the remainder increasing council tax by at least 2%.
Just one authority, Tory-run Central Bedfordshire council, has so far said it will freeze bills, while Westminster council, under Labour control for the first time in its history, has maintained the borough’s tradition of levying England’s lowest average council tax charge.
At the other end of the scale, three councils facing major financial difficulties after going effectively bankrupt have been given special dispensation by ministers to increase council tax bills beyond the 4.99% limit. Croydon’s bill will go up by 15%, while Thurrock and Slough councils will each raise bills by 10%.
The survey by the County Councils Network (CCN) covers 114 of 152 councils in England with responsibility for social care, with 38 yet to set a rate for 2023-24. These councils can normally levy a maximum 4.99% – 2.99% for general council tax and 1.99% ringfenced for adult social care.
However, even maximum council tax rises are unlikely to make a significant dent in the financial crisis affecting local authorities. Many will increase council taxes while making more cuts to services, as they battle high inflation and rising demand for social care – and in some cases possible bankruptcy.
Sam Corcoran, Labour vice-chair of the CCN and leader of Cheshire East council, said local authority leaders were setting budgets in the “most difficult circumstances” for decades, with many councils struggling to maintain levels of service and balance budgets.
“We all recognise the cost of living crisis is impacting on every household in the country and disproportionally on low incomes, but we have little choice but to propose council tax rises again next year, with many local authorities reluctantly opting for maximum rises,” he said.
He added: “With councils facing multimillion funding deficits next year, the alternative to council tax rises would be drastic cuts to frontline services at a time when people at the sharp end of the costof living crisis need us to be there for them.”
Despite inflation driving up costs by £16m next year, Central Bedfordshire council said “good financial management and planning”, together with use of financial reserves, had enabled it to freeze its share of council tax bills. “Given the pressures on households with the rising cost of living this is particularly important,” it said.
Westminster council, in the heart of the capital, has again set what it said was the lowest average council tax bill in England. It is limiting its increases of residents’ 2023-24 council tax bills to 2%, while unveiling plans to invest millions from reserves in free school meals for all primary school pupils, and £85m on buying ex-council homes to house homeless families.
Westminster band D households will pay £912 a year from April, an increase of £48. Nearby Hammersmith and Fulham council, which has the third lowest average council tax bill in England, is upping the charge by 4.99%, meaning an average bill of £1,306 (up £78).
The CCN said the typical band D bill for households in rural county areas is more than £2,000 a year and will rise to £2,149 on average with a 4.99% rise.
Westminster council’s leader, Adam Hug, said the council was not immune to the financial pressures faced by other councils. “Rolling out free school meals is something teachers and parents have welcomed. When we hear of pupils being sent to Westminster schools with two biscuits for lunch, this is an area where I know residents will want us to invest.”
Crisis-hit Croydon’s band D bill will be £2,230, an additional £234 a year. Croydon’s Tory executive mayor, Jason Perry, said: “I know this is going to be difficult for people in Croydon … but without the proposed increase, the council would need to make a further £20m of additional cuts this year, putting vital services to vulnerable residents at risk.”