The Conservatives in Brighton: Fears that council tax may prove a fresh liability

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Indy Politics
CONSERVATIVE fears that lack of Government cash will make the council tax a fresh liability in the wake of the poll tax surfaced yesterday.

John Redwood, the local government minister, delivered a blunt warning outside the conference hall that local government must take its share of public spending restraint. He warned that cash increases in council spending will have to be lower than in recent years, as inflation is lower.

With the Cabinet battle still being fought over the extra pounds 2bn that Cipfa, the public finance specialist, calculates is needed to cushion bills as the new tax comes in, the minister appeared to be lowering expectations, as he warned that 'we will expect local government to make a similar contribution to limiting public spending as central government will be making'. Both spending limits and capping rules would reflect that, he said, adding 'life is not easy'.

He confirmed that there would be a transitional relief scheme to limit the immediate rise in individual bills. But so tight is the public spending round that he appeared to hint that it might only last a year. Transitional relief would be an important feature, 'on the introduction of the tax, and probably beyond', he said.

He suggested that bills would not rise as dramatically in London as the original council tax estimates suggested. A million more properties had been found and London values had come in lower than expected, boosting the capital's share of government grant.

In the conference, representatives, some of whom believe the poll tax was killed by the Government putting too little cash up front, warned that the same mistake must not be made. Indeed, the morning's first spontaneous cheer went to Andrew Boff, from Hornsey, who said: 'The community charge wasn't very popular - personally I loved it.'

However, Elgar Jenkins, a former mayor of Bath, was applauded when he warned 'none of us can afford the failure of the council tax'. Whatever the public spending difficulties, he said, 'we must have sufficient money to ensure that the transition scheme to the council tax is simple to understand, and no one finds themselves having a huge upsurge in personal taxation thrust upon them. We must make it work'.

Mr Redwood, a former proponent of the poll tax, gave minimal reference to the council tax in his speech, showing little enthusiasm for it. Instead he attempted to rouse representatives by suggesting that the Yorkshire Ridings, Rutland and other old counties could re-emerge from the local government boundary review under way. 'If you want your past to become your future, say so and your wish can be granted.'

But he emphasised that the aim was 'not to gun down all county councils in a display of Government machismo, or to abolish all the districts in a fit of absent mindedness'.