Thursday, 14 March 2013

Freezing council tax was the right thing to do


Last week democracy prevailed at Cornwall Council with a decision to protect Cornish families by freezing council tax for a third consecutive year. When most people's incomes are frozen and bills for things like fuel are still rising, we must do everything we can to pin down those costs that are within our control. The move follows the success of an earlier Conservative motion to quash the planned rise in councillors’ allowances because it cannot be right to freeze wages for council employees but increase their own allowances.

Since the last election, the government has being pursuing policies to encourage prudence in county halls across the country. Firstly, there is now a requirement for councils to hold a referendum to get public consent for any rise over two percent. That's fair because it gives people a direct say in the council's budget.

The government has also offered additional cash to meet councils half way and help them deliver a freeze in council Tax. In the case of Cornwall, the government was offering an additional grant of £5 million if the council did its bit to identify savings of around £5 million which would deliver a freeze next year.

Accountants in the council argued that accepting the extra grant now might put them in a difficult position in a few years time because they might not win a referendum to put taxes back up. Rather than accept a £5 million bonus from government, they said they would rather just take an extra £10 million from Cornish families instead. That's not on. They even wanted to increase the size of the Council’s reserves which already stand at around £50 million. We all know that savings are something you put aside for a rainy day, but it is raining now. Many households in Cornwall will have found themselves needing to dip into their own savings to meet the pressures of hard times. It would have been wrong for the council to raid the piggy banks of Cornish families only to transfer the cash to their own piggy bank.

Now that a freeze in council tax has been delivered, councillors must plan to ensure that savings are delivered in the right way. One of the proposals from the Conservative group was to make major savings to the £5 million a year budget from the Chief Executives Department. It is also time to look afresh at the possibility of making savings by working together with other public services like the NHS and the police. Last year when such proposals were put forward they were unfairly attacked as "privatisation" which was nonsense. The council should be encouraged to work with other public services so that, together, we can share costs and find efficiencies without having to cut services.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.