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It's debate day - The Argus
Updated 7:54am Thursday 6th February 2014 in News
Hundreds of people are expected to gather this evening for one of the city’s most anticipated political debates of recent years.
The Green administration’s proposal to increase council tax by 4.75% has split the city ever since it was announced earlier this year.
Under current Whitehall rules, town halls cannot increase council tax by more than 2% without triggering a local referendum.
So if taken forward, the residents of Brighton and Hove would get to have their say at the ballot box on May 22 – the same time as the European elections.
Such a vote is estimated to cost the public £230,000.
Ever since The Argus broke the story of the proposed rise back in mid-January, the phones in the newsroom have not stopped ringing.
We have been inundated with views, questions and the occasional rant.
But not all has been negative. Many have praised the Greens for the “bold” move in an attempt to save public services.
With the strength of public feeling, we decided to not only hold our own referendum but also a public debate.
The Argus post room has been swamped with questions which we will put to your political leaders tonight.
Those we don’t have time for, we will ask afterwards and print the responses.
Michael Beard, The Argus editor, who will chair the debate, said: “The potential for the country’s first ever council tax referendum in Brighton and Hove has sparked fierce debate across the city.
“That is why The Argus has decided to stage The Argus Council Tax Debate at Hove Town Hall from 7pm tonight, so that the leaders of the three main parties in Brighton and Hove can explain where they stand on the budget, council tax and the proposed referendum, and why.
“We were determined that our readers, both in paper and online, should have all the facts, figures and arguments in front of them.
“Tonight’s debate will also give you the chance to ask the questions you want answered to the city’s political leaders.”
The proposed rise took opposition leaders and residents by surprise with the council thought to be working to an increase of about 2% for the 2014/15 financial year.
But, with a budget gap of more than £2 million, the Greens claim an above-inflation council tax rise was their only option.
If it goes ahead, it would result in an average Band D property increase of £71.64 a year to £1,578.92.
It would form part of a revised budget, which would have to be agreed at the council’s cross-party policy and resources committee next Thursday.
The rise would then go before all 54 councillors on February 27 with Conservatives (18 members) and Labour (14) able to unite and vote down the Green plan.
If it went ahead, the proposed referendum would then follow on May 22.
Setting out his stall before the debate, council leader Jason Kitcat, said the rise was needed with social care “in crisis”.
He added: “We should be proud to live in a caring society – one which has chosen to look after those who need it most.
“While our ageing population creates more demand for social care services, there is less and less money each year to keep providing what our most vulnerable need today, let alone the coming years.
“However there is only so much that can be taken from councils before there are few or no meaningful services left for those who depend on them.
“Given the further £100million our budget will shrink by in the next four years, we have reached a point where the city faces a significant choice: Either we don’t want to pay more to care for our most vulnerable citizens or we speak out for those who are rarely heard: the elderly, the frail, the disabled, the vulnerable.”
He added: “Our proposal is a clear, a practical and principled approach to protecting essential social care services. With this major step we should trust our city, and let the people decide.”
However, Labour leader Warren Morgan will argue residents cannot afford the rise.
He said: “Since 2010 water bills have gone up by 4%, gas and electricity prices have risen by over 8%, fares by more than 4% and clothing by a whopping 10%.
“In the same time real wages have fallen by 2.2% according to the Office of National Statistics. One in three Brighton and Hove residents has rising debts.
“They can’t afford a £6 a month tax rise. Labour say that residents should not be made to pay for Tory cuts to local councils.”
He will also argue the money for a referendum would be better spent on public services, and is expected to conclude that a 2% council tax increase is fairer – the same as set by nearby Kent and Surrey County Councils.
Geoffrey Theobald, Conservative leader, will state his party’s case for a freeze on council tax rates.
He said: “There is absolutely no appetite for a council tax rise of any kind – let alone one more than double the rate of inflation. The Argus ‘referendum’ results will back this up.
“After mortgage or rent payments, council tax is the biggest monthly bill that most people have and, as councillors, I believe that we have a duty to keep it as low as possible.”
Everyone is welcome at tonight’s debate, but we advise arriving well before the 7pm start time to avoid disappointment. Admission is free.
The Argus referendum ends tomorrow. To take part, vote in our ballot below:
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