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LGC FEATURE - TRICKY QUESTIONS

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When Bristol City Council asked its residents' views on council tax rises, it was criticised by locals, the unions ...
When Bristol City Council asked its residents' views on council tax rises, it was criticised by locals, the unions and the media. But referendums could be the future for local democracy. David Harding reports.
If the point of a referendum is to reinvigorate interest in local democracy, then Bristol City Council has achieved its goal.
The trouble is, with its recent referendum on how much education spending and council tax should increase, Bristol has stirred up a hornets' nest.
Teaching unions are threatening industrial action after the city's vote for a freeze on council tax led to a potential£4m cut to the education budget. The council's leaders have been accused of cowardice, a national newspaper urged Bristol to disregard the result for the sake of its schools, and ministers are keeping an ever-watchful eye on the political ramifications of the vote.
But while Bristol held its poll, the residents of Croydon LBC voted for a 2% council tax increase that caused hardly a stir. How could one council apparently get it so wrong and another so right?
Crucially, Bristol's approach differed from that of Croydon - and of Milton Keynes Council, which carried out a similar exercise in February 1999 which ended up with residents voted for a council-tax rise of almost 10%.
First, Bristol's planning was less extensive. Croydon and Milton Keynes had the foundations in place for nearly a year. Bristol, says leader of the council George Micklewright (Lab), began planning just before Christmas.
More importantly, the vote was carried out with more than one eye on the upcoming local election on May 3. Defending a majority of just two, the ruling Labour group seemed reluctant to take the decision of raising taxes just months before an election, especially as tax levels had been static for two years.
'There were good constitutional and democratic reasons, but there were political reasons as well,' says Mr Micklewright. 'No national government goes into an election increasing direct taxation, but they expect us to do it.'
One lesson to be learned is that councils may not be able to use referendums to wriggle out of making decisions at politically sensitive times - it only ends up landing the politicians in more hot water.
Bristol's experience shows the pitfalls of a policy that has emerged since the last General Election.
Referendums can leave councils between a political rock and a hard place. Urged to consult with residents on vital local issues, Bristol is now faced with an outcome where having followed one government policy it will have to cut its support for another - education.
But referendums signal a new chapter in the relationship between councils and residents.
'I can see in the future more use of referendums on issues affecting the local area as a whole,' says Nick Easton, head of policy at the Local Government Association. Alex Folkes of the Electoral Reform Society, agrees. 'I don't think this is the death knell for referendums,' hesays.
Issues beyond tax have already persuaded people to vote. In November 1997, 50% of the Torbay electorate voted on traffic-calming measures. A year later, 45% of the South Holland District Council electorate voted on whether Spalding should have its own town council.
Last month's votes suggested political interest at local level is still alive. Bristol's turnout was 40% -150,000 voters - and 54% backed the freeze in tax.
In Croydon the turnout was 35.1%, and in its 1999 referendum Milton Keynes mustered a 45% turnout - some 67,000 voters. Electronic voting played a part too, accounting for more than 3% of votes in Croydon.
Given the average turnout in local elections is somewhere in the mid-20,000s and falling, these figures are impressive.
But in Bristol the issue now is to sort out the political mess. A budget meeting on March 6 will confirm the council tax freeze.
'It's not going to be easy,' admits Mr Micklewright. Then again, putting a price on a democratic vote never was.
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