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TS Eliot once wrote that 'April is the cruellest month'. It is shaping up that way for the next council tax billing...
TS Eliot once wrote that 'April is the cruellest month'. It is shaping up that way for the next council tax billing round as the argument about who is to blame rages on.

The Times reported an ICM poll for the Local Government Association Conservative group which found 39% of the public blame the government for council tax rises. I recently ran a focus group for a district council where some intrepid members of the public turned out on the coldest, stormiest night of the year. They had a clear message - they liked the council and they held the government responsible for the fact the council could not spend more on the services they felt were important. The government is not winning the PR battle at the moment.

On top of calculating next year's bill, most council treasurers must have spent most of last month answering surveys about how much they planned to charge. LGC's own survey made the nationals, but it was only the start. The Sunday Times claimed at least 63 councils were planning inflation-busting rises, based on its own survey. The Independent called 50 councils and claimed at least 10 were proposing double digit tax rises.

And all this did not even begin to take into account how many councils might actually be capped as a result of the rises, or the criteria that might be used to wield the axe. Reading the reports, it appeared local government minister Nick Raynsford and his team had been looking at websites, reading local papers and quite possibly asking a bloke down the pub for evidence a council was planning something dastardly.

The Sunday Times returned to the old faithful 'fat cat pay row', highlighting that Mr Raynsford had 'read the riot act' to Leicester City Council after learning it wanted to impose a 14.5% council tax rise after awarding chief executive Rodney Green a 21% pay increase.

But they picked the wrong target when they spoke to Colin Moore, chief executive at Redcar & Cleveland Council, who has seen his pay rise from£83,000 to£110,000 and has been put on notice of capping after planning a council tax rise of 5.7%.

'We actually wrote to Raynsford first,' said Mr Moore. 'His office did not notice we had written to him when they sent out their rather silly letter.'

As he pointed out, when he arrived at the council four years ago it had the second highest council tax in the country and in his first three years at the helm council tax has not increased. Round one to Mr Moore I think.

But we cannot lose sight of the fact the rises are hitting individuals hard. A feature elsewhere in The Sunday Times about the work of the Samaritans highlighted that those people ringing the service in despair about debt will frequently open the conversation with the information that they cannot pay their council tax.

The Sunday Express reported that 'the blue touchpaper was lit as war hero David Richardson, 84, was dragged in front of the courts for non-payment of his council tax'. Mr Richardson was one of several Devon pensioners making a stand. The chair of the Devon Pensioners' Forum pointed out that he faced a rise of 18%, meaning an extra£215 a year, more than double the increase planned in the basic single state pension.

And although the government is getting the blame now, the long-term effects might be different. That same

ICM poll for the LGA Tories found that a quarter of those surveyed did blame the council, and a further fifth did not know. By the time the spring comes, the government will have moved on to other issues and who will be left to carry the can?

Carol Grant

Partner, Grant Riches Communications

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