UPDATED: Wirral looks set for 2% council tax increase after Government split over capping (From Wirral Globe)
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UPDATED: Wirral looks set for 2% council tax increase after Government split over capping
WIRRAL householders should know today if they will be facing an increase in council tax bills.
Last night it was revealed town halls will be able to hike the tax by up to 2% without holding a referendum.
The move came after Liberal Democrats blocked calls by their Tory coalition partners for a tougher limit.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is understood to have vetoed a 1.5% cap for this year over fears that it could hit "vital" services.
The threshold is due to be confirmed by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles in a written statement to MPs today.
The coalition has tried to keep council tax down in two main ways - by offering financial top-ups to authorities who pledge freezes, and by insisting local referendums are held on increases above 2%.
Wirral Council must set its spending plans by a legally-binding deadline of March 10 – a draft budget already has been published which assumes a 2% tax increase for the borough.
But council leader Phil Davies said: “Until we’re officially told where the capping level has been set, it’s impossible to finalise these decisions
“The Government is leaving it desperately late to let local authorities know.
“We refused the (£1.3m) tax freeze top up grant last year as we were not allowed to include it in the base budget.
“That meant the following year we’d have to make even more cuts to replace it.
“Along with other Merseyside council leaders, I have been lobbying the Government to see the grant is built into the budget.
“If it is, and depending on a few other factors, we would obviously consider accepting it.”
A report to next week’s budget cabinet meeting paints a bleak picture for the future of local public services.
It reveals a funding gap of £83m which will have to be filled either by increasing revenues or cost-cutting over the next three years.
However, the report shows Wirral currently has £64m in the bank held in “reserves" and Mr Pickles has been urging councils to release this cash to pay for services.
“Frankly, that is reckless to say the least. We need those reserves to cover a multitude of things, not least insurance,” added Cllr Davies.
“What would happen if, for instance, somebody slipped over on a pavement, put in a claim, and we had no insurance to cover it?
“Believe me, I have been asking our director of finance to make sure every single pound that can be released from reserves is released and put into the budget.”
Conservative group leader Cllr Jeff Green said the administration should serve notice it intends to call-in around £35m of loans it has made to other local authorities across the Northwest.
He said: "Every penny of those loans has come from taxpayers to provide services for Wirral people. Householders have no choice at all in whether they pay their taxes, but this is not what they pay them for.
"It is absolutely incumbent on the administration to scrutinise every penny and ensure it is being used for helping local people, not splashed out at preferential rates to other councils."
Liberal Democrat councillor Stuart Kelly said: “Cllr Davies is not correct when he claims he has asked the finance director to make sure every single pound that can be released from reserves is released.
“Cabinet papers issued for next week's budget meeting reveal money released from reserves - because they are no longer required - has been diverted away from supporting the council budget and put into a new account to be called ‘The Remodelling Reserve.’
“This is sheer madness; the only budget growing at Wirral Council is the amount squirreled away into reserves.
“Some of this could be used to freeze council tax, switch street lights back on and remove the threat of taking away school crossing patrols from busy roads.”
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