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Tory friction and the council tax blame game

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Commentary on Surrey CC’s proposal to raise council tax by 15%

Rumours had been circulating for some time that Surrey CC would trigger a referendum by opting for a council tax rise beyond 4.99% this year.

But the decision to opt for a striking 15% hike, coupled with an intriguing political thread that leads all the way to Downing Street, ensured the decision would attract national attention.

The fact that Surrey’s Tory leader David Hodge, who also heads up the Local Government Association’s Conservative group, insisted in an interview with LGC his council has been forced into such a decision by the scale of imposed funding cuts has placed the government in an uncomfortable and potentially damaging position.

Cllr Hodge has admitted he was uneasy giving ammunition to critics of the government and his party, but said he had been left with no choice but to seek a mandate from the people for drastic action.

He was stark in his assessment of the council’s position, insisting the money was needed otherwise vulnerable people would be put at serious risk.

Cllr Hodge cited the well-publicised and growing pressures on social care services, support for people with learning disabilities and children’s services.

By his own admission, this was a Conservative council leader who felt forced into an emotive and damning critique of government policy in a bid to fulfil his duties to those he serves.

Mr Hodge said Surrey has been lobbying government for months to provide some relief to growing funding pressures.

The vigour with which he has pointed the finger at the centre also hints at a growing frustration that the county, and local government in general, appears to have little traction with the powers that be.

But there are risks associated with his strategy.

People in a Conservative-dominated county, which includes the constituencies of chancellor Philip Hammond, health secretary Jeremy Hunt, and transport secretary Chris Grayling, may not be easily willing to accept such a significant increase in local taxation that Cllr Hodge and his colleagues say is necessary.

This is particularly pertinent if members of the cabinet choose to intervene in the referendum and defend the government’s record and the level of funding Surrey receives.

In this context it is worth noting that Surrey was recently criticised by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission for its support for children with special educational needs, raising the possibility of a new dynamic to the blame game.

A referendum defeat would force the responsibility to protect the vulnerable back on the council at the expense of wider services that people in Surrey are accustomed to.

The poll is due to take place on 4 May - the same day as the local elections - and with a Conservative administration so spectacularly abandoning a tried and tested electoral pledge to keep council tax low, there could be ramifications at the ballot box.

But as 59 of the 81 members on the county council are Tories, Cllr Hodge obviously sees it as a risk worth taking.

Of course, there is a slim possibility this stunt could force the government to find some funds behind the back of the sofa for Surrey before it finalises the local government finance settlement but doing that would only lead to other local authorities knocking on the door asking for more. 

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