Council tax bills set to go up again next year - but we’re not to blame, say County Hall chiefs

Coun Simon Henig, the leader of Durham County Council.
Coun Simon Henig, the leader of Durham County Council.

Council bosses are being forced to ‘take the rap’ for service cuts – despite the government repeatedly slashing funding.

Families in County Durham can expect to see further increases in their council tax bills next year as the county council continues to struggle to balance the books.

But for council leader Simon Henig, the responsibility lies at the door of No 10 Downing Street, where successive prime ministers have forced local authorities to squeeze their communities ever harder.

“I would prefer the government to give us the resources needed,” he said.

“Where there’s a crisis of increased demand, which is costing Durham millions a year, my thought is the government should respond by putting their resources into the system.

“The government is saying ‘we will let you take the rap and we will make the taxpayers pay for these crises’.

“I will always argue there should be flexibility, but it can’t be right that when there’s something which is a national crisis that the answer is to increase council tax more.”

Despite the pressures facing local authorities from a combination of cuts to central government funding grants and growing pressure on adult social care and children’s services departments, some councils have tried to avoid passing the cost on to families.

Somerset County Council, for example, froze council tax for six years from 2010.

Now the Conservative-controlled council finds itself staring down the barrel of bankruptcy, while planning swingeing cuts to libraries, children’s centres and disability services.

A more high-profile case is another Conservative-led authority, Northamptonshire County Council, which issued a Section 114 order earlier this year.

That bans all new expenditure except for safeguarding vulnerable people and statutory services, and is supposed to be used only when the council is deemed financially unsustainable.

This year alone Northants has issued two such orders.

Durham, however, says it remains committed to keeping its budgets balanced in the long term, hence the council tax rises.

Coun Henig said: “We’ve modelled in an increase each year, and clearly that reflects increasing pressures, particularly in children’s and adult services.

“Somerset decided to freeze council tax for many years, and as a result have worked to the point where they’re about to go over the cliff.

“We’re aware it’s not an easy thing to do - it’s a difficult thing to do.”

Coun Henig also adds there is a level of ‘annoyance’ among council bosses at what’s seen as buck passing by the government, which he claims sets its own spending on the assumption local authorities will increase council tax every year.

Some initiatives from Westminster have been a help, such as the Better Care Fund - a cash pot to improve and integrate health and social care services.

But that funding is only guaranteed until 2020/21, meaning the cash is fine for ‘pump prime initiatives’, but not as useful for longer-term investment, such as more staff.

“Statutory services are very difficult to plan when you haven’t got certainty around funding,” said John Hewitt, the council’s corporate director of resources.

Councils were recently promised light at the end of the austerity tunnel, with a speech at the Conservative Party conference promising an end to penny pinching.

But the claim has cut little ice with Mr Hewitt so far.

He added: “It’s worth making a point about talk of austerity ending, because when you look at councils like Durham, even if County Durham saw flat cash, Durham still doesn’t generate enough cash [itself] to meet the pressures it’s got.”

Self-sufficiency has become an increasingly attractive idea for some English councils in recent years, particularly in London and the South East.

Some areas have argued in favour of allowing authorities to keep more of the business rates they collect, which under the current system are pooled and then redistributed.

But Coun Henig warns this risks an ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality among councils.

For example, London’s Westminster City Council raised almost £2billion in business rates in 2016/17 – almost a tenth of the total collected nationally.

By comparison, Durham managed about £117million.

It’s a similar story for council tax, where more affluent communities with more large homes in the South East produce more money than Durham can.

According to Hewitt, while a one per cent rise in County Durham could yield an extra £2million, the same increase in Surrey could bring in about £8million.

But even Surrey hasn’t been immune from austerity pressures, and in 2017 was accused of striking a sweetheart deal with the government after threatening a referendum on a 15 per cent council tax increase.

But this is not a route Coun Henig is prepared to go down.

He said: ”I’m never one for playing political games, we’re taking the opposite approach.

“We’re doing our budget six months in advance, and our approach has been to do it very clearly.

“We’re still lobbying, we’re saying these are the figures, these are our overspends, now we need the government to respond.

“There’s different ways of lobbying, but we prefer to do it in this way – they can’t say we didn’t tell them about the pressures.”

James Harrison, Local Democracy Reporting Service