ELECTION ANALYSIS: Should you be worried about Labour ‘doubling council tax’?

Chris Williamson visited Worthing in January for a Labour fundraising event. Picture contributed by Pat Schan
Chris Williamson visited Worthing in January for a Labour fundraising event. Picture contributed by Pat Schan

Conservative leaflets suggesting Labour would double council tax caused a stir last week when Labour figures criticised the claim ahead of next month’s Worthing Borough Council elections.

Worthing Labour figures insisted the suggestion was neither local or national policy, while the Tories defended their right to include the statement as part of their campaigning. Click here for the full story.

Councillor Beccy Cooper, currently Worthing Borough Council's only Labour representative

Councillor Beccy Cooper, currently Worthing Borough Council's only Labour representative

But do the claims stack up? In this special piece, we analyse the issue.

WHAT WAS SAID?

Conservative election leaflets, under the headline ‘Watching the council tax bills’, stated: “Over the past eight years council tax rises in Worthing have been kept well below inflation – a far cry from when Labour doubled council tax during their period of government.

“Now a senior Labour MP has let the cat out the bag – they’d double council tax bills again if we ever give them a chance. You just cannot trust Labour with the public purse and your council tax bills.”

Cambridgeshire County Council has proposed to increase its tax by 4.99 per cent

Cambridgeshire County Council has proposed to increase its tax by 4.99 per cent

The Herald has collected election statements from all five of the political parties seeking election in next month’s elections, with a pitch from the Tories published online here.

The statement repeats the council tax issue but varied in that it said Labour could double ‘some council tax bills’.

It read: “Average council tax rises have been below 0.9 per cent since 2011 after Labour doubled council tax when they were in power. Labour councillors are trying to get the council tax referendum cap scrapped and a senior Labour MP has proposed doubling some council tax bills. It’s evident they’re planning another huge tax hike for you.”

WHAT IS THE CLAIM BASED ON?

The senior Labour MP mentioned is Chris Williamson, previously shadow minister for fire and emergency services.

Mr Williamson’s controversial remarks, according to national reports, put forward his vision for doubling council tax for the highest-value homes.

The BBC reported increases could be staggered from 20 per cent for a Band D home up to 100 per cent for the highest Band, H.

Mr Williamson acknowledged, however, his idea was not Labour policy. His comments came amid ongoing funding pressures faced by local authorities across the UK, as their government grant is reducing – and will soon disappear entirely.

No such increases were implemented in the UK this year.

In a Labour List article, The Derby North MP makes clear his vision would be realised by Labour councils calling a referendum and winning voters over by comparing the benefits of having more cash to invest to difficulties arising from funding pressures.

National media linked Mr Williamson’s resignation from the shadow cabinet to his council tax ideas, although in an interview with Labour List the MP denied he had stood down over the issue.

THE LAW ON COUNCIL TAX

Rules for councils and other organisations which collect council tax, like police, are set down in the Localism Act, introduced under the coalition government.

The level council tax can be raised each year is fixed by the Secretary of State and if authorities wish to exceed the limit, they must gain backing from the public in a referendum.

If an ‘excessive’ increase over the annual limit is agreed without a referendum, the offending body’s council tax collection account would be automatically frozen.

For the 2018/19 financial year, county councils were allowed a six per cent increase (with three per cent ring-fenced for social care), while district and borough councils – like Worthing – were limited to three per cent or up to and including £5. Parish councils are not subject to a limit.

WHAT HAPPENED IN WORTHING THIS YEAR?

The council’s annual budget was set at a meeting of all councillors in February.

The budget included a council tax increase of 2.96 per cent – below the nationally-set threshold.

Labour’s only Worthing councillor, Beccy Cooper, abstained in the voting. The minutes of the meeting said: “Councillor Cooper addressed council suggesting that the budget reflected the ongoing cuts to local authorities which was unprecedented.

“She highlighted a number of areas that were unacceptable - PCC (Police and Crime Commissioner) increase, reduction in RSG (Revenue Support Grant), retention of business rates, increase in council tax to local residents.”

COMMENT: ARE WILLIAMSON’S COMMENTS RELEVANT?

The Conservatives have a significant majority on Worthing Borough Council, with 28 more seats than UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, which each have two seats.

Even if Labour took an unprecedented and unlikely clean sweep and won all 13 seats up for grabs next month, the Tories would still have control of the council.

The earliest Labour could assume power is 2019, following another round of local elections. Taking control of the council would represent a significant uphill battle, given the party currently has just one councillor – its first in the town for more than 40 years.

Assuming the Secretary of State kept the limits roughly the same next year, a council tax hike of the level Mr Williamson suggested would still require a referendum.

Should Labour table a Williamson-style proposal at next year’s budget meeting, it would need support from Tory councillors to progress.

And if a referendum was called, the decision rests with residents.

Things could change on a national level. A Labour Government could emerge from a snap General Election – but voters are only selecting local candidates next month.

Mr Williamson’s remarks were unsurprisingly used by political opponents.

Their significance in the context of Worthing Borough Councils elections this year, though, appear limited.

It is not the first time – and will not be the last – that issues more relevant to national matters appear on local campaign literature.

What do you think? Send your thoughts to news@worthingherald.co.uk or comment on our Facebook page.