Cornwall Council was caught hopping by the surprise freeze in Council Tax forced on them by opposition councillors, says Cornish MP George Eustice. The Conservative run council had planned to raise its Council Tax by 1.97% just below the threshold needed to trigger a local referendum. But the opposition Lib Dems were joined by some backbench Tories to pass the freeze in the budget by 52 votes to 49.
Cornwall's cabinet had argued that a rise in Council Tax was needed to protect frontline services but the opposition said their budget could freeze the tax and make savings of £4.6m by giving local residents exactly what they wanted rather than wasting money on unwanted council expenditure. ‘What I hope will happen,’ says MP Eustice, ‘is that, after council elections in May, the new regime will be able to have an emergency budget and have a proper look at how to deliver these savings but do it in the most sensitive way.’
According to the winning budget proposal, first to go will be the £310,000 councillors had awarded themselves in increased allowances in the previous month. Half of this will then be spent on filling in potholes and repairing children’s playgrounds. The major saving, however, will be a 25% reduction in taxpayers’ money spent on agency and consultancy staff over the next four years. There will also be a cut of £400,000 in the council’s communication budget.
The surprise success of the tax-freezing budget caused one senior Conservative councillor to quit the cabinet. ‘I think that asking for the price of a Mars bar each,’ he claimed in defence of the proposed tax rise, ‘on top of what they already pay, so they can have the dignity they need, is not a lot to ask for.’
Having been politically outplayed by the Lib Dems in the run up to the council elections in May, the local party leader has since claimed they were against any tax rise! ‘The Conservative group’s plan,’ she insisted, ‘was for the necessary savings to come from the chief executive’s department and not from front line services, but the Liberal Democrats would not support our plan.’ Well, obviously not, they preferred their own vote-winning strategy. Let’s hope whoever triumphs in May in Cornwall sticks to their tax-freezing budget.