Council Tax referendums: power to the people?

Since the 2012-13 financial year, council tax increases beyond the government’s limit can trigger local referendums. But are they having an impact on policy?

The Council Tax: before and after localism

Local government spending in Great Britain is paid for by three main sources:

  • central government
  • business rates
  • council tax

The council tax pays for about a quarter of all local services. However, cuts in funding from central government have put pressure on local authorities trying to maintain and improve services. As a result, in recent years many councils have been forced to impose council tax rises. This in turn has generated opposition from local residents and charges from central government that the increases are excessive.

Previously, if ministers believed that local authorities were increasing taxes excessively they had the power to cap council tax rises. However, in 2010, the Conservative general election manifesto promised to give residents the power to veto excessive council tax increases. The measure was included in the coalition government’s programme for government and introduced in the Localism Act of 2011.

The thresholds for council tax rises

The Localism Act, which applies only in England, gives local communities the power to decide on council tax increases above a certain limit.  The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government determines this limit, which has to be approved by the House of Commons.

If a local authority proposes to raise taxes above the limit they must obtain approval from local voters in a referendum.

For the 2016-17 financial year, the government proposed the following thresholds:

  • Local Authorities with social care responsibilities – 4% (an extra 2% to fund social care)
  • District Councils, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), fire and rescue authorities and the Greater London Authority (GLA): 2%
  • Districts and PCCs whose council tax level is in the lowest quartile of their type of authority may raise council tax by up to £5.00 on a Band D bill (which may be a greater rise than 2%).

This means, for example, that a local authority with social care responsibilities wishing to raise its council tax above 4% would have to organise a referendum on the proposed increase. In addition, the authority would have to make substitute calculations that would take effect if the proposed increase is rejected in the referendum.

Triggering a referendum

In March 2016, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) found that many councils are set to increase council tax close to the 3.99% maximum allowed under the referendum cap.

Few councils have so far set council taxes at a level that would trigger a referendum.

In 2015, the Green Party on Brighton and Hove Council failed to secure backingfrom the other parties for a 5.99% council tax rise. A settlement of 1.99% was eventually agreed, but the Greens said a bigger rise would have helped protect services for the elderly, adults in care, children and those living below the poverty line.

Bedfordshire says “No”

In May 2015, residents in Bedfordshire became the first in the country to vote in a referendum triggered by a decision to raise the council tax. The county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Olly Martins, increased the amount of the council tax for Bedfordshire Police by 15.84% compared to the previous year. He claimed that the increase would provide funds for more police officers.

However, the rise was rejected by almost 70% of voters, and the council had to issue new bills based on the lower increase of 1.99%.

Mr Martins said the result would mean a reduction of up to 135 uniformed officers from the existing 1,067. He also raised concerns about the rules on the wording on referendum ballot papers and awareness-raising during the campaign.

But Richard Fuller, the Conservative MP for Bedford claimed that the £350,000 spent on holding the referendum, and the £250,000 for re-billing meant that Mr Martins had shown “incredibly poor judgement”.

Here to stay

With only one council tax referendum to consider, it’s still too early to assess the impact such polls may have on policy. However, the costs and time-consuming nature of organising referendums of this kind may be acting as a deterrence to raising council tax bills above the referendum cap.

The government remains committed to the policy of council tax referendums, and has suggested that it could be extended to parish councils. In March 2014, the Labour Party confirmed that there were no plans to abolish the referendum principles. However, there is no guarantee that this will be the party’s policy going into the next general election.

For the foreseeable future, council tax referendums are here to stay.

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