Blair constituency has highest council tax

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Sedgefield, whose local MP is Tony Blair, is on course to become the place with the highest council tax in the country. Residents of the town, in County Durham, who live in houses classed as band D for council tax purposes can expect annual bills of just under £1,376 - the highest out of 250 authorities in England and Wales that have set their council tax rates.

By contrast, the council tax bill for a band D house in Westminster, in central London, will be less than half as much, at just over £605. The figures for all the councils that have set a tax so far are posted on a website run by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Even if Sedgefield is pipped at the post by some other council setting a higher rate in the final few days of the financial year, its place near the top of the list is bound to be used by the Conservatives as ammunition against the Prime Minister.

Last year, Sedgefield had the second-highest council tax in the country - a point seized on by Michael Howard when he taunted Mr Blair in the Commons last month, accusing him of trying to wriggle out of responsibility.

Mr Howard pointed out: "It has a Labour-controlled district council, a Labour-controlled county council and a Labour government. It even has a Labour Member of Parliament. Is none of them responsible for the council tax in Sedgefield?"

The leader of Sedgefield council, Robert Fleming, defended the high tax bills, saying residents received good value for money, and that most were paying lower than the band D figure, anyway.

Mr Fleming said: "One of the problems with using the band D figure to compare Sedgefield with other councils is that we have very few band D properties in the area. By far the largest number are band A, and so are paying less."

Part of the reason for Sedgefield's high council tax is that it is shared out among no fewer than five local authorities.

In fact, most of the council tax paid by Mr and Mrs Blair and other Sedgefield householders goes to Durham County Council. Sedgefield District Council, which sends out the bills, keeps only about £1 out of every £8 it collects. Another portion goes to Durham Police Authority, which has increased its precept by 15 per cent this year, making it liable to have its budget cut by central government.

Durham fire authority also claims its share, and Sedgefield is unusual in that it is broken up into towns and parishes, each of which collects a local rate. Fortunately for the Blair family, their parish council, Trimdon, charges less than some others.

Government threats to "cap" high-spending authorities, forcing them to reduce council tax bills, appear to have worked. Average bills are expected to increase by less than 6 per cent this year, one of the lowest rises ever.