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Kent County Council warns another 4% council tax hike likely as funding pressures bite

PUBLISHED: 06:00 12 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:11 12 October 2017

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A consultation into the proposals launches today

Taxpayers across the county are likely to face yet another increase on their bills next year as Kent County Council continues to grapple with funding pressures.

Town hall chiefs admitted this week a council tax hike of around four per cent is almost certain, as money from Whitehall dries up year-on-year.

The local authority today begins a six-week consultation to engage with the public over the need to find millions of pounds worth of savings.

KCC leader Paul Carter warned last month that “a day of reckoning” was imminent, with frontline services potentially at risk if central government failed to provide some sort of additional resources for the council.

Speaking to KentNews.co.uk ahead of the consultation launch this week, cabinet member for finance, John Simmonds, explained the nature of the challenges but declined to reveal the areas that could be at most risk - or indeed the number of jobs facing the axe - when the budget is finally rubber-stamped next February.

“There are hints something may happen for local authorities in the chancellor’s November budget so there is a reluctance to pursue some avenues if indeed we do get some more money,” he said.

“So it’s a delicate balancing act, but if there is nothing from government we may have to look at services.

“We are losing another £30m in revenue support grants from the government and inflation is at three per cent – for every one per cent of inflation, that is a cost of around £8m for us.

“In total we’ve really got to find £104m of savings.”

Some of those are set to be made through what Cllr Simmonds describes as “transformation programmes and improved contract management”.

The council was boosted earlier this year by a £26m cash injection from the government to help fund the growing social care crisis, though leader Cllr Carter said it wasn’t enough to meet the needs of a growing elderly population across the council.

In an additional bid to ease pressure, the government’s communities secretary, Sajid Javid, announced before Christmas last year that town halls could increase the ‘social care precept’ on council tax bills from two per cent to three per cent.

This is on top of the general maximum council tax rise of 1.99 per cent.

When setting the most recent budget eight months ago, KCC declined to take that particular option and imposed a total rise of 3.99 per cent rather than the top bracket 4.99 per cent, which was implemented at Medway Council - a town hall completely independent from KCC.

Cllr Simmonds told us it was “unlikely” the council would plump for the full 4.99 per cent rise this time around but admitted it was a possibility.

“It’s a weapon we have in our back pocket if we want,” he said.

The Conservative councillor estimated a rise in council tax would swell the coffers by north of £25m but there would still be substantial savings to be made.

“You have to look at the context, we’ve already made £600m of savings and it’s getting blummin’ difficult,” he said.

“If government were as efficient as we were, they’d have made more savings.”

Some may argue, however, that after six or seven years of comments about the state of finances, without the type of collapse in services that council chiefs have warned about in the past, central government may feel town halls are crying wolf, and be reluctant to provide additional funding in the coming weeks and months.

“They did think that at first, and we had a problem convincing our own MPs because they were briefed by [former chancellor] George Osborne that we had huge reserves and it’s not true,” Cllr Simmonds added.

“The reserves we have are to do with replacing machinery and computer systems, or if you get a sudden spate of flooding or, God forbid, a terrorist incident. We are really not flush with reserves at all.”

Critics however would point out that members at County Hall voted for a pay rise of some 15 per cent earlier this summer, which perhaps would suggest money is not quite as tight as the warnings suggest.

Labour MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, described KCC leaders as “greedy” and last week urged the city council in her constituency not to follow suit - though leader Simon Cook threw cold water on her comments, insisting councillors had in fact agreed allowances below what was recommended.

With the rise for KCC members set to add costs of around £245,000, one could argue it does not make a huge splash in the context of a multi-million-pound budget, but Cllr Simmonds said he accepted people would remain unhappy over the decision.

“We had been losing some young members on the allowances we were getting – they just couldn’t afford to do it,” he said.

“You could argue the timing was not perfect and I fully understand the criticism but it’s been dormant since 2008/09.

“We would like to get more balanced representation. There a lot of grey-haired, over 60s, and it’s nice to have them 60s because they provide experience, but there are dangers that you can lose contact with what the taxpayers want if you don’t have that balance.”

Another round of consultation will be held in the new year using feedback from this period of engagement.

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