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Last Updated: Friday, 20 February, 2004, 15:35 GMT
South West: A bill too far
Chris Rogers
Chris Rogers
BBC South West Political Editor

Everyone loves a little person fighting big authority. So another unlikely heroine hit the headlines last week.

Elizabeth Winkfield
Elizabeth Winkfield was supported at court

Elizabeth Winkfield lives in a small bungalow in Westward Ho in North Devon.

She is short, feisty and 83 years old, and the media delighted in recounting how she arrived at court in Barnstaple in a hat from a jumble sale and a smart two piece woollen suit she had made herself.

The homely old fashioned mixture of making and making do is a stark counter to the fact she was prosecuted for not paying the 98 council tax she owes Torridge District Council.

If I was a millionaire I would not pay up
Elizabeth Winkfield, 83

Like so many of the protesting pensioners, Miss Winkfield was adamant in her determination to go to gaol if necessary .

"I'm making a stand", she said " If I was a millionaire I would not pay up."

Council tax bills in Devon are not the highest in the country, nor have the increases been the highest.

But the remorseless annual supplements of recent years culminated last year in a massive 17.9% hike, as the council attempted to maintain its services.

The last straw?

Those who suffer most are the middle-income retired with modest savings and a fixed income who do not qualify for benefit payments and live quiet lives watching the pennies.

They resent the increasingly voracious call on their contribution. Many no longer live a quiet life.

They have joined the Devon Pensioners' Action Forum, set up in response to last year's increase.

There is simply no more money available from people like us to pay for your schemes
Albert Venison, Devon Pensioners' Action Forum

The chairman, Albert Venison, is fast becoming a campaigning celebrity. His message to the councils is clear.

"You are not listening to us", he says with a certain vehemence.

"There is simply no more money available from people like us to pay for your schemes.

"If you can't afford them other than with an increase, forget them.

"Just give the people of Devon what they want, essential services up to a level that's affordable."

It is not only pensioners who feel hard-pressed.

Families with young children are finding it tough as well.

At one Torbay children's centre you can hear just as much passion.

"It is disgusting, the way the tax rises and we don't see anything in return" says one young mother.

"It's rising ridiculously", says another, "and it is already hard to make ends meet."

Ministerial intervention?

But you won't see a Devon Mothers' Action Forum, not yet anyway.

Perhaps mothers are too busy to band together, and perhaps they lack the resentment of veterans who fought and won a war for freedom 60 years ago and now feel ripped off by their own side.

Nick Raynsford
Minister has warned councils to curtail council tax increases

Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford is well aware of the feeling.

His tactic has been to pressurise councils into low single figure settlements, helping them along with an above inflation grant and a one-off top up handout.

But even if councils settle around a 5% increase, they will have to cut services.

Government will get as much blame as councillors, especially if those cuts hit disadvantaged groups like the disabled and the elderly.

.. Where we came in?

Are the elderly prepared to accept far fewer services in return for an affordable council tax?

What about the rest of us, the struggling young couples, the middle-aged in good jobs?

What services do we want and how much are we prepared to pay?

In summer 2004 the government will publish its suggestion for a replacement for the council tax.

It is supposed to contain an element reflecting ability to pay.

By the time the system is changed, however, it is anyone's guess how many pensioners could be in gaol.

The Politics Show wants to hear from you.

Let us know what you think. That is the Politics Show Sunday 22 February at Midday.

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