Prescott reforms 'to put £360 on council tax bills', claim Tories

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Council tax bills are to "soar" by as much as £360 per household to pay for local authority reforms planned by the Government, the Tories claimed last night.

They said plans by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to replace boroughs and county councils and transfer more power to regional assemblies would cost billions, which would be passed on to the taxpayer.

The Tories calculated that the cost of restructuring local authorities could mean a rise of between £201 and £358 per year for each household. They said the rise would hit pensioners already struggling to meet huge council tax bills.

Last week, the Government began a public debate and consultation on the restructuring of local government. They are considering replacing borough and county councils across England with bigger unitary authorities.

Eric Pickles MP, the shadow minister for Local Government, said: "The cat is out of the bag. John Prescott is plotting to drive his bulldozers through England's shires, and wipe historic boroughs and counties off the municipal map. Restructuring will do nothing to improve local services, and make town halls more distant from local people.

"Hard-working families and pensioners could see their bills rise by up to £360 just to pay for the ensuing administrative chaos."

The Tories cited the work of the Cambridge University academic Michael Chisholm, who calculated the cost of reorganising local government in all 34 counties in England would be £1bn if one unitary authority were created for each county and £3.5bn for five per county. The initial costs would, it is claimed, be passed on to the council-tax payer.

But Mr Prescott's department accused the Conservatives of scaremongering. A spokes-woman said: "We have made clear that any structural changes in local government will not lead to increased burdens on council-tax payers.

"The debate we need to have concerns the best way of empowering local people. It is plain wrong for anyone to try to close down the debate when now is the time for an open dialogue about the best system of local government in shire England.

"The Government does not have a 'one-size-fits-all' plan but we do know that change will only be sanctioned if it delivers greater efficiency."