Robert Evans Response to Surrey’s Proposed 15% Council Tax Rise

Comments made by County Cllr Robert Evans (Labour) – Stanwell and Stanwell Moor

Source: https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/your-council/council-tax-and-finance/council-tax/council-tax-201718

Surrey County Council’s Leader David Hodge (Conservative) has announced a recommendation to seek a council tax rise of 15% in 2017–18 to fund social care services. He believes this is the only way to protect these vital services following substantial cuts in Government funding and an increase in demand for them every year.

Why is this increase necessary?

The Government has cut Surrey County Council’s annual grant by £170m since 2010, leaving a huge gap in our budget.

Demand for adult social care, learning disabilities, and children’s services is increasing every year.

Despite finding £450m worth of savings from our annual budget, the services have been brought to breaking point and we have no choice but to recommend this increase.

A Conservative Government cutting the budget of a solidly Conservative Council suggests to me that Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Surrey MP, either has no faith in his own council, or they are playing games of some sort – at residents’ expense.

How much more would Surrey residents have to pay?

A 15% increase would be equivalent to £3.66 a week for an average Band D property.

If the Conservatives really wanted to address this, the Chancellor would bring in extra Council Tax bands so that people in expensive properties over £1m in value would pay their fair share of tax. Council Tax is a very unfair system of taxation that hits the poorest hardest and doesn’t require the very wealthy to properly pay their way. Surrey has many large, multi-million pound properties that could, quite reasonably, be expected to pay their fair share.

What happens next?

The recommendation will be considered by the council’s Cabinet on Tuesday 31 January. The Cabinet paper and annexes for the recommendation are available to view online. Scroll to item 8 on the agenda.

If it is approved by the Cabinet it will then be considered by all of the Council’s members on Tuesday 7 February.

If approved by Full Council there will be a referendum to ask residents if they agree with the proposal.

The cabinet will presumably rubber stamp this and then, with 60 out of 81 members on Surrey County Council, it will presumably go through. It will be very interesting to see how many brave Conservatives oppose this. Many are known to be unhappy but are threatened by de-selection if they oppose the party line.

Why would there be a referendum?

The Government limits council tax increases to 1.99%. For this year it is also allowing an additional 3% adult social care precept which can only be spent on adult social care services.

If a council feels this will not be sufficient to run its services and wants to recommend a larger increase, it must hold a referendum.

The referendum may just be being used as a smokescreen to give Surrey County Council cover for their cuts or the Government may feel that Surrey has been so poorly run over recent years that they can be made an example of.
Trying to pay for a vitally important service like adult social care from Council Tax is both unfair and unsustainable. This sort of service must be funded centrally from the Government and paid for from revenue. This is the downside of right-wing austerity measures.

When would the referendum take place?

The referendum would be held on Thursday 4 May at the same time as the county council elections.

Residents would therefore be able to vote at the same time, in the same place, for both.

The referendum itself will cost an estimated and valuable £1.6 million. It will increase turn out which is a good thing, but will it make the Council more accountable?

What would happen with council tax bills?

The Government legislation says that council tax bills must be issued as usual in February and March and then amended if necessary following the referendum.

So the 15% increase would be included and if it is not agreed in the referendum then new bills would be issued. For people paying monthly they would be debited for April and May including the 15% increase and if it is not agreed their total for the year would be recalculated and their debits adjusted for the remaining months. Those paying annually would pay a bill including the 15% increase and receive a new bill and a refund if it is not agreed in the referendum.

This is going to be very confusing and cause alarm for local residents. This is where the conspiracy theories come in. Maybe the Government is using Surrey as guinea pigs to see if this outrageous, right-wing plan will work. Funding adult social care from Council Tax is not the answer.

Are other councils in a similar position to Surrey?

We don’t believe that other councils are facing the same level of cuts in their grant.

We regret the need to do this, as Surrey residents shouldn’t have to pay any more for their services, but the lack of funding means our hands are tied.

Surrey residents pay more income tax to the Treasury than any region outside London, and they are being expected to pay far more council tax for local services due to Government funding cuts.

This really begs the question as to why the Chancellor is making an example of his own county. Has Surrey’s leader David Hodge such poor negotiating skills that Philip Hammond just won’t listen? What have the other 10 Surrey MPs being doing and saying – including the two other cabinet members?
Maybe Philip Hammond has been so critical of the way Surrey has spent its money in recent years – paying extra allowances to half the Conservative group, giving the leader and others huge rises in allowances, spending £1.5 million on Magna Carta celebrations …

What will happen if the increase is not made?

If we don’t increase council tax now we’ll be forced to make cuts in services that will have a huge impact on residents.

It would be irresponsible of us not to act – funding cuts will continue in future years so it’s vital we take action now to preserve services in the future.

… Or the Government will have to step in and recognise that this is just not right and there must be a better, alternative way to fund local services.

Why can’t you make savings?

We’ve already found £450m worth of savings in our annual budget since 2010/11 and we’re aiming to save £700m by 2020, but it’s not enough to keep services running.

Demand for Adult Social Care alone is increasing by £24m every year.

We need £70m for learning disabilities but the Government have cut this by £32m.

The alternative for savings, which I have suggested and which the Conservatives have rejected, is to cut the cost of democracy and make Surrey more efficient.
In addition to Surrey County Council, we have eleven boroughs and districts. So, twelve county or town halls plus additional buildings, twelve chief executives, dozens of deputy chiefs all on large salaries in addition to over 600 councillors – more if you include parish councillors. So, Surrey is top heavy and inefficient with an inflated and expensive bureaucracy.
Other counties have recognised this and there are alternative models that could be followed. Berkshire abolished itself some years ago and delegated powers to six unitary authorities, saving money and making residents much clearer as to whom is responsible. This is now being copied by Dorset.
An alternative model would be to follow the Cornwall plan where they abolished the districts and made the County Council responsible for everything except minor town issues.
Both schemes are much cheaper and more efficient.
But both would mean Surrey sacrificing councillors and as many of the Conservatives are ‘twin-hatters’ ie they are on borough and county council, they have a vested and financial interest and rejected even investigating these plans.

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