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Brighton battles over tax referendum

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The leader of Brighton & Hove City Council has insisted his plan to hold England’s first council tax referendum, on a 4.75% tax rise, could still go ahead despite opposition from the Labour and Conservative groups on the council.

Jason Kitcat (Green), who runs the council’s minority administration, will need the support or abstention of councillors from other parties in order to hold the poll.

Both the Labour and Conservative groups have said they will oppose the Green party’s proposals.

Conservative councillor Dee Simson, deputy leader of the opposition, told LGC: “We hold the majority between [ourselves and Labour], so we can’t imagine it will go to a referendum.”

But Cllr Kitcat told LGC: “It doesn’t need the other parties to support it; it just needs some councillors to sit on their hands.”

Cllr Kitcat has won the support of the local GMB and Unison branch secretaries for his plan, and they will now consult members about it.

“I’d expect the Labour party to be heavily lobbied by the unions about it,” he said. “And some Conservatives may recognise the view of their ministers, which is that you should put it to the people.”

He said he expected negotiations to go on “right up until the decision”, which will be taken at a full council meeting on 27 February. The council has 21 Green members, 18 Conservatives, 14 Labour members and an independent.

Cllr Kitcat said he expected other councils to hold council tax referendums in future because an “inflection point” had been reached in local government finance.

“People are really struggling and councillors are having to make unpalatable choices,” he said.

“No one goes into local government to shut services down.”

However, he has dismissed as “absurd” comments by his fellow Brighton Green councillor Ben Duncan, who reportedly said the council should “make it Brighton and Hove versus this government, about austerity” by setting an unlawful budget.

Referendum rules dictate that Brighton & Hove must issue residents with bills for the 4.75% increase and refund them if the referendum is lost. It must word its referendum question as set out in regulations under the Localism Act 2011.

“I wouldn’t support the process, but that’s what the government has set out so it’s what we have to do,” Cllr Kitcat said.

A recent budget consultation in Brighton & Hove asked residents: “Do you think council tax should ever rise?”

Fifty per cent of the 659 respondents said that “under some circumstances” they would support a council tax rise in future, although they were not asked about when or by how much. Six per cent said they would support a council tax rise in any circumstances.

Meanwhile, the Labour group has tabled a no confidence motion in the Green administration, to be discussed at a council meeting next week.

Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour group, said this was because the group had “absolved themselves” of the “basic duty of a council administration to set a budget”.

Asked whether the Conservative group would back this motion, Cllr Simson said: “I can’t say yet how we’ll vote, but we certainly don’t have a lot of confidence in the Greens.

“This 4.75% just seemed to come out of a hat – how can you have confidence in them when they do things like that?”

Cllr Kitcat told LGC the no confidence motion was “meaningless” and had “no binding status”, adding that his administration would “carry on as usual” if it lost the vote.

The Green administration is planning to hold the referendum on 22 May, alongside the European Parliament elections. The council estimates this will cost £230,000, which is £120,000 cheaper than holding a standalone poll.

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