Devon and Cornwall council tax payers face rising bills as agencies defy call for 0% increase
All Devon and Cornwall council tax payers will see their bill increase next month after local authority, fire and police chiefs defied a Whitehall campaign to freeze the levy.
A Western Morning News analysis has found that six public bodies in the region have opted to hike their share of the bill – arguing Government cuts are too deep to protect frontline services.
A bill totalling of up to £1,600 will land on the doorsteps of Devon residents living in the average band D property. In Cornwall it rises to about £1,300.
In parts of Devon, the overall charge will go up by only around £1.50 over the year, but others could see a spike of closer to £30.
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Devon County Council, Torbay unitary authority and five district councils in the county – East Devon, Mid Devon, North Devon, Torridge and Teignbridge – have all capped their part of the levy. Officials and councillors at those authorities have been persuaded by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles' offer of a grant equivalent to a 1% council tax rise if they froze bills in April.
But others have refused, which represents a blow for the minister and underlines the increasingly fractious relationship between central and local government.
Mr Pickles has blasted councils for not doing enough to avoid putting up taxes, and published a 50 ways to make savings guide, including slashing lavish away days. Most councils say they have already made the savings.
Labour-controlled Plymouth City Council is the region's biggest authority to defy the minister – and the most outspoken. Council tax will go up 2%, or around £25 over the year for a band D householder.
Councillor Mark Lowry, Plymouth's cabinet member for finance, has labelled government cuts "irresponsible" as the authority will have to find savings of £17.8 million on top of the tax increase. He said: "The Government is blatantly attempting to push the blame for its cuts on to local government, but is not being upfront about the scale of them."
Smaller district authorities are also pushing up the charge. Exeter City Council is pushing up average bills by 4%, or £5 over the year. South Hams District Council has agreed a 3.5% increase, roughly a £4.80 annual hike. Meanwhile, West Devon Borough Council's charge will increase by 1.9%, or nearly £3.60.
West Devon leader, Conservative councillor Philip Sanders, said: "We are acutely aware of the difficulties that our residents face in these challenging economic times. But we feel it is important to maintain essential services at an acceptable quality."
Exeter council leader, Labour's Pete Edwards, said: "We must increase council tax to protect essential services."
Every household in Devon and Cornwall will feel the 2% increase to fund Devon and Cornwall Police, or £3.19. The region's elected police commissioner, Tony Hogg, said the cash was needed to prevent further cuts to officers.
All household budgets in Devon will be pinched further by the joint fire authority for the county and neighbouring Somerset increasing the precept by 1.99%, or £1.47.
Councillor Mark Healey, chairman of the Devon and Somerset Fire Authority, said: "We have the highest number of fire stations and fire engines in the country outside London but receive far less funding than many other authorities."
Cornish residents are largely shielded from the austerity-busting increases after the Duchy's single-tier authority U-turned on a proposed hike and decided to freeze the charge. At least 230 councils in England are freezing or reducing their council tax for 2013-14, according to latest figures. The Department for Communities and Local government (DCLG) said its latest data showed that at least 257 out of 421 authorities intended to accept the Government's grant offer, though the final numbers would not be known until later this month.
Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis recently praised Cotswold District Council for reducing council tax by 5% – described as the biggest cut in the country.
DCLG said the government had set aside £450 million over two years as part of the autumn statement package to help support local authorities in freezing their council tax for the coming financial year.