Sheffield says 'no thanks' to a chance to give

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CHILDREN will flounder, the disabled will be left immobile, and empty library shelves will not be filled. Sheffield council tax-payers, given the chance to donate a windfall to a civic good works fund, have chosen to pocket a rebate themselves.

The chance for Sheffielders to establish their altruistic credentials came about through the Byzantine workings of town hall finances. A late offer of extra money from the Government, following a plea by a council delegation to Whitehall for more cash, led to an extra pounds 2.5m for the South Yorkshire city in rate support grant.

Sheffield has suffered huge cuts in services in recent years, due to financial crises caused by its hosting of the World Student Games, and spending limits imposed by the Government.

The offer of government cash came after council tax bills had been sent out, so councillors hit upon the idea of asking the 200,000 households eligible for rebates of their share of the pounds 2.5m surplus to donate it for extra services.

'Members of the public told us they would rather keep paying at the old rate and improve services,' Richard Eastall, chairman of finance, said. 'The Government has forced cuts in services of pounds 108m since 1991.'

It would be illegal not to offer taxpayers rebates ranging from 99p a month in Band A, which covers two out of three Sheffield homes, to pounds 2.80 for the most expensive houses.

It would also be illegal to channel waived rebates into general council funds. The idea of a special fund was hatched and won support from Conservative councillors.

The first pounds 250,000 raised was earmarked for partial restoration of school swimming lessons, the next pounds 250,000 for adaptations to homes of the disabled, then pounds 500,000 for library books, pounds 200,000 for environmental improvements, and pounds 1.3m for repairs to schools.

So far, only pounds 59,000 has been pledged by just 4,000 households. Primary school children in year six will receive lessons for one term, a dog paddle of a service compared to the formerly comprehensive tuition.

'It is disappointing, but I was always a bit sceptical and never expected the full pounds 2.5m,' Mr Eastall said. 'For example, people on benefit could only make the donation out of their own pockets - the DSS was never going to waive the rebate.

'It required a positive effort to fill in a form, otherwise the rebate is automatically given. Most people do not reply to things unless they have to.'

At Pond's Forge, the internationally acclaimed watersports centre Sheffield built for the World Student Games, swimmers had either forgotten to complete their rebate donation form, or did not understand it. 'I talked about it with the wife. We said OK, but forgot all about it,' said one man.

Some taxpayers had not forgiven the council for its spending on the World Student Games. The event lost pounds 10m.

'They've had enough off me,' a mother said. 'If the school wants to run swimming lessons, I'll give the money to the school, not the council.'

Mr Eastall said that Sheffield's donation scheme was the first attempt by a council to ask for volunteer taxpayers. 'We probably won't do it again,' he said.