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The great Brighton and Hove council tax debate: The background
"It's a mess, a complete mess."
As the branch secretary of Brighton and Hove’s GMB union, Mark Turner has been involved in a fair few scraps over the years.
But in all his time debating with politicians and highly-paid executives, he has rarely come across a situation as sensitive and sensational as the one currently facing Brighton and Hove City Council.
In the Green corner is the ruling minority administration which believes frontline public services, such as refuse collection and libraries, can be maintained only by increasing council tax by 4.75%.
With a budget black hole of £2 million as the council looks to save £24 million for 2014/15, the Greens claim without the extra money – about £5 a month for an average Band D property – they will have to cut back on what the authority currently does.
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In the blue corner are the Conservatives, who believe the rates should be frozen.
This would mean the council receives a Government grant – branded by some as a “gimmick” – equivalent to a 1% increase.
Then there is Labour which, as the council’s third largest group, has found itself the kingmaker in recent years.
It feels the public should pay an extra 2%, the most allowed by a Government cap.
Any more than that and a referendum costing £230,000 must be held.
If no onemoves, then the whole budget will be set by the Government.
But Mr Turner believes there is an even more important issue at the centre of the stalemate debate – the future of local government.
With town halls across Sussex already stripping back services in recent years, there are few areas where big savings can be made.
And with officials warning Brighton and Hove will have to find up to £100 million over the next four years, the council’s two largest unions believe the planned above-inflation rise is the only option.
Speaking to The Argus yesterday, Mr Turner said: “I do not believe the public is aware of the dire situation that local authorities are in.
“If the Tories form a Government with a majority in 2015 then local government will just be an administrative body not operating any local services.
Hardship “I also do not think the people of Brighton know what £25 million out of a total council budget of £750 million is worth.”
He added: “This new budget would protect frontline services in adult social care and a disabled workshop where we have members.
“Cuts would have absolutely terrible consequences on people’s lives. It is only right that the public have a chance to vote on this proposal.”
Alex Knutson, the city’s Unison branch secretary, said: “Local government is groaning under the strain of trying to deliver services with ever-reducing funds.
“The coalition’s austerity measures are creating extreme social hardship and are fundamentally fragmenting our society.”
The issue of council tax is historic, with each of the local authority’s last three budgets being dominated by the issue.
In 2012 Labour joined with the Tories to vote downthe Greens’ planned 3.5% rise – the maximum allowed by a Government cap – to ensure a freeze in the rates.
A year later the minority administration was supported by Labour in its proposal for a 2% rise.
Now the Greens want to ask the public what they want to do, a move supported by the council’s two largest unions, GMB and Unison.
Mr Turner said: “I do not believe the council would be in this situation if Labour had supported the Greens when they tried to increase council tax by 3.5% in 2011.
“That’s £11.5 million the council has lost.”
Yesterday The Argus revealed that opposition councillors plan to unite and pass a vote of no confidence in the Green minority administration.
Labour is then calling for a caretaker administration to then take over until the elections in May 2015.
But council leader Jason Kitcat said he will not resign and vowed to continue doing what he thought was best for the city.
Mr Turner believes him – but fears the stalemate might only be resolved with a local election 12 months ahead of schedule.
He added: “No one is going to step up in the next 12 months.”
With the budget not being set until a council meeting on February 27, The Argus launched its own poll referendum on the council tax issue.
Coun Kitcat is calling for a public debate on the social care and funding pressures facing the city.
He said: “I appreciate times are tough for our citizens as most wages are not keeping up with costs.
“So this is the right time to ask the people what they think is the right approach – do we cut back services or pay an extra £4.53 a month or less for the majority of households to show we really are a caring society?”
It’s over to you.
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