Excuses to explain the cut in Surrey’s council tax increase – from 15 per cent to just five – have been dismissed after it was revealed that the measures described by the Tory government and Surrey’s Tory council leader would not justify the change.
The government is claiming that Surrey Council cut its council tax increase unilaterally, and there was no “sweetheart” deal with Whitehall. Instead, we are told that Surrey has been invited to take part in a pilot scheme to retain 100 per cent of business rates, which would be used to plug gaps in funding:
In a statement, [Sajid] Javid [Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government] said Surrey County Council’s budget and council tax “is a matter for the council”, adding it “had been clear that their budget decision (setting a level of council tax which is not above the referendum threshold) was theirs alone”.
Under the Local Government Finance Settlement, the Department for Communities and Local Government discussed funding with councils across the country “of all types and all political colours”, he said.
“Whilst the final settlement has yet to be approved, the government is not proposing extra funding to Surrey County Council that is not otherwise provided or offered to other councils generally,” Mr Javid said.
“There is no ‘memorandum of understanding’ between government and Surrey County Council.”
He said Surrey had asked to take part in the pilot of a new business rates scheme, adding that other councils could also apply to take part.
But these claims were destroyed by Surrey’s only Labour councillor, Robert Evans, and by TV presenter Andrew Neil on today’s (February 9) edition of the BBC’s Daily Politics.
Mr Evans described a long delay in discussion of the budget at Surrey Council’s tax-setting meeting. Discussions were understood to be about a 15 per cent rise, but then all members – including those on the council’s Conservative cabinet – were shocked to hear that the increase would now be five per cent.
He said: “Something must have been done because for months, Mr Hodge, the leader of the council, has been telling us there is no alternative … and the budget wasn’t going to add up without the 15 per cent rise in council tax… We’ve been asking for information and details and it’s all been clouded in mystery and secrecy.”
He referred to the text exchange between Mr Hodge and a person known only as ‘Nick’, described in This Site’s article yesterday, saying: “We were told at the last minute, based on these texts, it would be all right and we could get away with just five per cent. It’s no way to run a council; it’s a shambles.
“There’s a big gap in the budget. One minute we were told it would be 15 per cent, then suddenly it’s five per cent.”
Daily Politics co-presenter Andrew Neil expanded on this, pointing out to Kwasi Kwarteng MP, who was representing Surrey Conservatives in the discussion (but had no answers), that the business rate pilot does not begin until 2018: “Surrey will now have to find an additional £30 million of cuts in this financial year… It has already lost £170 million in central government funding.
“It was a political decision to do that by taking £4.6 billion out of the social care system. You devolved the problem. You cut the budget… and said ‘Over to you’!
“And you chose some of the most vulnerable people to be affected by this. You chose to do this in a way that affected some of the oldest and most vulnerable people in society.”
And he brought the discussion back around to Jeremy Corbyn’s original point in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, which was about the possibility that Surrey had been offered a deal while Liverpool – equally cash-strapped but run by Labour – had not.
“if keeping more business rates is a solution for Surrey, that’s because Surrey has lots of businesses,” he said.
“There are other parts of the country where they don’t have that many businesses and this is not a route that helps their social care.”
That is, of course, the point. It seems that, forced to explain why it was starving Liverpool and feeding Surrey, the Tory government realised that it could use the business rate pilot scheme to get out of trouble. Surrey would benefit more from such a scheme so, even if Liverpool applied to be part of it, the city would probably not get as much out of it.
God forbid that Labour-held areas should actually receive funding from our ‘One Nation’ Conservatives, after all!
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