Conservative council leaders have criticised minsters’ public attacks on local authorities over their reluctance to freeze council tax.
Private correspondence seen by LGC shows leaders were “very disappointed” by ministers’ behaviour and believed the publicity campaign attempted to tie their hands at a time when they were struggling to set balanced budgets.
Surrey CC leader David Hodge (Con) complained after communities secretary Eric Pickles suggested the council’s financial management was to blame for its decision to increase council tax.
Cllr Hodge told Mr Pickles he was “very disappointed to read comments attributed to you in the Daily Telegraph” as “I was under the impression you understood … it was impossible for Surrey to accept the grant [to fund a council tax freeze] because of substantial budgetary pressures”.
The letter, obtained by LGC under a Freedom of Information request, described the information used in Mr Pickles’ attack on the council as being “at least four years out of date”.
Surrey CC was among 16 Conservative, 15 Labour and four councils with no overall control that refused to implement the freeze because of concerns about their long-term financial position.
But Tory leaders who took the cash also wrote to ministers to complain about their handling of the issue.
Mike Jones (Con), leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council, said the policy was taking decision making away from councils. Authorities were “being forced to implement a freeze” as a result of the grant and ministerial campaigning, he said.
“Although the council tax freeze is voluntary, the conditional nature of the funding presents councils with very little choice,” he said. “The announcement and media coverage will also have given many members of the public the impression that this is a ‘done deal’.”
The pressure faced by Tory leaders over the policy is made clear in a letter from Cambridgeshire CC leader Nick Clarke (Con), who wrote to ministers to reject the freeze but admitted his letter “will be seen as being politically unfriendly”.