The three main political parties have expressed a belief in localism – the idea that decisions should be made as closely as reasonably possible to the people who they impact. There are some differences in terminology within the political parties but at a local government level, all three of them have tended to restate their basic commitment, especially at the annual LGA (Local Government Association) conference.
Local councils are being offered a Council Tax Freeze Grant of 1 per cent if they set a 2013/14 budget that produces no increase in the tax. Consistent with the principles of localism, I emphasise that this is an offer, not a requirement. But is it an “offer that we cannot refuse” in a loose Sicilian sense? No it is not, but local government ministers make it clear that they would prefer councils to accept the grant. You could call this guided localism.
There are in fact three Council Tax Freeze grants – 2.5 per cent running for the duration of the current Parliament, 2.5 per cent for 2012/13 and 1 per cent for 2013-15. Crawley Council has accepted the first two of these grants and I would like it to accept the third. The result will have been Council Tax freezes from 2011-15. The same grants have so far been accepted by West Sussex County Council and the former Sussex Police Authority, with that last decision now resting with the Sussex PCC (Police and Crime Commissioner).
Decisions like this are best made by local councils on their merits as they affect the local community. There is an additional provision for increases set above 3.5 per cent. These have to be subject to a local referendum but that is quite a costly exercise. It could in some cases add a further 1 per cent or more to a Council Tax bill.
A frozen Council Tax across West Sussex does make a real difference to people’s pockets and therefore increases spending power. That is a powerful argument alongside the clear statement that a freeze gives about the soundness of a council’s finances and its good housekeeping.
Alongside these arguments, councils need to manage as well for the possible cessation of Council Tax Freeze grants. In the absence of further announcements, we would have a situation in 2016 where all three grants were ended. Then it would be necessary to find resources to bridge the gap to fund the freezes of previous years.
This is an important challenge and local authorities must have the freedom to analyse their own circumstances and reach a balanced judgement on Council Tax policy. That is about addressing local priorities and determining how to raise the resources to meet them. It is called localism.