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By Kerry Lorimer ...
By Kerry Lorimer

The government is upping the pressure on councils it believes are planning large tax increases by calling leaders in to justify them.

Local government minister Nick Raynsford has arranged face-to-face meetings with 11 councils planning increases above low single figures.

Medway Council, summoned this week to explain a planned increase of 15.7%, said the meeting had given some grounds for optimism.

Although Mr Raynsford dismissed Medway's concerns about education passporting, one of the main pressures faced by the council, he agreed to discuss other aspects of its case at a second meeting in two weeks' time, said deputy leader Alan Jarrett (Con).

'Ministers don't suggest second meetings lightly, and if he was going to tell us to go away and get on with it, there would be no point in having one,' said Mr Jarrett.

Paul Watkins (Con), leader of Dover DC, which is planning an 11.2% increase, said his mood on meeting Mr Raynsford would be very positive.

'I expect the minister to respond to what is common sense,' he said.

Dover will explain it needs a 4% increase in its grant to break even, with additional support to allow it to meet obligations on licensing, anti-social behaviour and recycling.

'What I am not prepared to do is dip into reserves, because the situation will not get better and we will have the same issue next year,' said Mr Watkins.

The government's increasingly hard line on council tax rises has fuelled speculation the tax is to be replaced by a reformed property tax and levy on incomes following the ODPM's balance of funding review.

But one member of the review group said he would be surprised if the government had reached any conclusions this early in the process.

'Expressing a preference now would be like deciding the outcome of an inquiry before you've heard the star witnesses,' he said.

The ODPM said commenting at this stage on the likelihood of any reform would pre-empt the conclusion of the review group.

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