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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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Cumbria council accepts Government grant to freeze tax bills

County councillors have voted to accept a Government grant that will allow the authority to freeze council tax for the second-year running.

Stewart Young photo
Stewart Young

They approved the plan by a substantial majority yesterday at a full council meeting in Kendal which heard some impassioned debate about the merits and potential pitfalls of accepting the £5.1 million grant.

Leading the opposition to the plan was deputy leader of the council, Stewart Young, who argued that the freeze would ultimately lead to the loss of 200 council jobs.

He told the meeting that the Government grant would be a one off and would lead to problems for the authority next year.

Mr Young said: “In effect it will lead to a hole in our budget which can only be filled by charging a double council tax increase or finding extra savings or a combination of both.

“If the council accepts the council tax freeze grant this year, cabinet is recommending a council tax increase the following year of 3.5 per cent.

“That means that in addition to the £5.7m of savings which are currently unidentified for 2013/14, council would have to find an extra £3m to make up for the loss of Government grants.”

Mr Young said the grants represented a trade-off between lower council tax today and further cuts in the authority’s budget tomorrow.

Council leader Eddie Martin said town halls had a moral duty to freeze council tax for people who are struggling with household budgets and accepting the grant was something that it could directly control.

The meeting heard that the country was facing a financial tsunami which would not stop rolling for another three or four years.

Councillor John Mallinson endorsed accepting the council tax freeze grant, saying that he suspected Labour members of the county council had learned nothing from the trouble which the last Labour government encountered as a result of “adopting a reckless tax and spend policy”.

He added: “I do not want to refuse £5m from the Government. I believe we should accept the public expenditure should reduce to a more manageable level than it has been in the past.

“We need to plan for the future and it will be a more austere future.”

Councillor David Southward told the meeting that it would be tempting for the council to accept the Government’s grant and bask in ephemeral electoral popularity, but the decision would have an effect next year.

He said: “Inevitably, essential services would have to go as well as jobs. If we accept this one-off grant it would make the problems more difficult year after year and in perpetuity.

“The police authority and Allerdale and Barrow councils have rejected this inducement and I implore you to reject this council tax freeze grant.”

Councillor Keith Little echoed Mr Southward’s comments and predicted that perhaps as many as 300 jobs could go in future years as a result.

Councillor Reg Watson said that community secretary Eric Pickles was giving money with one hand and taking it away with the other.

He said: “I think Mr Pickles is in a pickle and he’s offered us a pig in a poke.”

The public sector union Unison issued a statement before the vote telling councillors that accepting the Government grant would be a “vote for future cuts in jobs and services in Cumbria”. The union added: “Rural counties like Cumbria rely on the public sector to sustain employment.”

But 51 councillors voted in favour of accepting the grant while 22 voted against.

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