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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Council tax protests spread
By Sarah Toyne
BBC News Online personal finance reporter

Albert Venison and other protestors
Albert Venison is risking jail

The metric "martyrs" hit the headlines, over their defiance of measuring apples and pears.

Now the government has a new brand of grass roots protestor to contend with, this time over the issue of council tax increases.

Quite simply, the protesters say the tax has become unaffordable, and unfair - and some of them are refusing to pay.

Jail prospect

The main protest involves 200 Devon pensioners, some of whom say they are willing to risk jail over the issue.

The campaign is being led by Albert Venison, 78, a retired businessman from Axminster.

John Peerless
I am withholding my council tax until I get a reasonable demand
John Peerless

Overall, he says his council tax bill has gone up by about 100% over the last six years - and he says he can no longer afford to pay the increase.

Mr Venison says this year's increase was the "straw that broke the camel's back".

Most of the Devon protestors are continuing to pay their council tax, but only paying part of this year's increase.

In reality, they are paying just 1.7%, instead of 18.5%, on top of last year's council tax bill.

This means Mr Venison should be paying 138 a month. Instead, he is paying the council 119.

"They are talking about you could go to prison for 14 days....It would be interesting to see if they would grasp the mettle".

"We are willing to go all the way. ..If it ends up at that, we would be willing to go to prison."

Wider issue

Neil Duncan-Jordan, spokesman for the National Pensioners' Convention, says it is not simply a protest about council tax.

"It is a protest at how low the pension is compared to the cost of living", he tells BBC News Online.

"The argument is that their pension increase doesn't match the 18% plus increase that council tax has risen by...They have said they can simply not afford it."

Council tax will be one subject up for debate at the Pensioners Parliament in Blackpool next week.

It will be a chance for the issue to be raised by pensioners with the three main political parties, including the new pensions minister Malcolm Wicks, in one of his first appearances in his new brief.

Mr Venison says the protestors will be "courteous", but the government sees it slightly differently.

It says: "Taxpayers have every right to voice their opposition to council proposals.

"It is illegal, however, to withhold payment and those who do could find themselves facing serious penalties."

Rural services

The other main protest is being run under the IsItFair campaign.

IsItFair is an umbrella organisation for a range of groups, from Cumbria to Buckinghamshire, who are protesting at a range of issues, from council tax reform to rural poverty.

For people in rural areas, most feel the shelves are half empty and the prices just went up by 20%
Peter Doyle, Devon County Council

It was set up by retired office manager Christine Melsom to protest against Hampshire County Council's 15% increase.

"People are so incensed and it is not just pensioners. We have a young single mother and she works...She says it is not worth her working, because she has to pay the council tax."

"They feel it is very unfair, as it takes no account of your ability to pay."

Mrs Melsom says there are now between 400 and 500 members of the Hampshire group, but doesn't know how many people are actually withholding money.

She says the "huge amount" of money being collected does not reflect the services people can expect in rural areas - and it is time for the government to overhaul the way it funds councils.

Sympathy

Sympathy may come from strange places, but council tax funding is part of a wider political debate about how councils should be funded - and their relationship with central government.

This means that councils can be sympathetic to the protestors' views.

Members of Devon County Council, for example, are lobbying MPs for "fundamental reforms" for the sources of funding for services which are currently provided by local authorities.

Peter Doyle, head of communications, told BBC News Online: "For people in rural areas, most feel the shelves are half empty and the prices just went up by 20%."

"The system we have got now clearly is not fair."




SEE ALSO:
Pensioner continues tax sit-in
26 Jun 03  |  Devon
Council takes 1,300 to court
19 Jun 03  |  Kent
Council 'stealth tax' threat
30 Apr 03  |  Business
Tax protest gets political
13 Mar 03  |  England
Elderly willing to risk jail
03 Mar 03  |  England


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