Debate over council tax plans

COUNCILLORS admit they are “torn” over proposals to freeze council tax bills in favour of accepting a one-off Government grant of around £1m.

Residents could be in line for some respite if Hartlepool Borough Council freezes its council tax level in order to qualify for the grant, which is equivalent to raising the 2011-12 level by 2.5 per cent.

But freezing the bills means services could be harder hit in the future as the council is bringing in less income.

The local authority’s scrutiny co-ordinating committee met on Friday to discuss the issue.

It is the second time the Government has offered the grant – described as a “bribe” by some councillors – to authorities that freeze rates and in December the cabinet committee backed the proposals.

But at the time cabinet members warned bills could rocket by anywhere between 2.5 and five per cent in the coming years as a result.

The final budget for 2012-13, including council tax rates, will be confirmed at a meeting of the full council in February, at which the Cleveland Fire Authority and Cleveland Police Authority precepts will be added.

Speaking at the scrutiny meeting, Mayor Stuart Drummond said four other Tees Valley authorities had rejected the grant while it was still unclear as to whether the police and fire authorities would do the same.

He said it made long-term financial sense not to accept the grant because those councils that do, have less money in their base budget.

Mayor Drummond added: “Without wanting to be to controversial, the reason why we are taking the Government bribe is because we have an all-out election this year.

“It would be very hard for any member in here to accept a rise.”

Labour councillor Jonathan Brash described it as a “Government con”, while chair of the council, Carl Richardson, said: “It is a bribe and not a very good one.”

Conservative group leader Ray Wells said he objected to the term “bribe” when it is a grant.

Labour councillor Marjorie James, chair of the scrutiny committee, said there were some “awkward and awful” decisions to be made.

Labour group leader Chris Simmons admitted he was “torn” while Labour councillor Pamela Hargreaves, who described the grant as a “sticking plaster”, said: “We do not have to take it. We do have a choice.”

But other members said they were minded to take the grant to help residents as it was unclear what would happen in future years in terms of Government support.

Coun James added: “There is little alternative in a town with as much deprivation as us.”

If council tax levels are frozen, it means that from April, anyone living in a Band A property will continue to pay £1,113.68 a year, residents in a house in Band D £1,670.51 and those in the most expensive Band H properties will continue to pay £3,341.02.

In 2010-11 residents were faced with a 2.6 per cent rise, which added between £28 and £85 to council tax bills.

But people were given some respite this year after the council took advantage of the government grant and froze the 2011-12 council tax bills.