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Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2007, 14:24 GMT
Council tax bills in spotlight
By John Andrew
BBC News, Local Government Correspondent

As a report predicts council tax bills in England are set to rise by an average of 3.5% this April, the issues affecting varying bills across the country are examined.

Council tax bill
Some local authorities face "real spending pressures"

These figures should be taken with a pinch of salt.

They are based on draft budgets, and from only around a quarter of councils in England.

Local authorities have until March to set their council taxes so there is still plenty of debating ahead before final bills go out during April.

Even so, the figures make interesting reading, and if this early trend of a 3.5% rise in average bills continues, it will be the second lowest increase since 1994.

But how have they done it, particularly when many were complaining about a poor grant settlement?

Election pledges

Well, councils have generally performed well when it comes to efficiency savings - even beating the government.

Politics may also be at play - many councils will have their eyes on May's local elections.

Some, like Hammersmith and Fulham Council in West London, have honoured earlier election pledges to reduce the tax - in their case by 3%.

But a closer look at the figures show the real spending pressures faced by some authorities, especially the shire counties, many of whom got below-inflation increases in grant.

Cornwall, proposing a 5% increase, is one of many shires proposing to push spending right up to the government's capping limit.

It is no co-incidence that these same authorities are responsible for care of the elderly, the demand for, and cost of, which has been rising dramatically.

Reductions in services

Almost seven in 10 councils have had to restrict their service to those in substantial or critical need, so that those with lower needs, such as help with washing or dressing, are having to rely on family and friends where they can.

Interestingly, though, there is evidence that council tax payers are ready to pay more to help.

When Hampshire asked its citizens panel to choose between a 2.5% council tax increase with significant cuts or a 4.5% one with less severe reductions in services they plumped for the higher rise.

The campaign group Is It Fair?, which wants to see the council tax replaced with one more based on the ability to pay, says that any increase in tax will cause further hardship to many pensioners and others on low or fixed incomes.

Kirklees Council - based in Huddersfield - is believed to be the first in the country to offer all those aged 65 or over and not receiving council tax benefit, a 30 reduction in their bill.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Sir Michael Lyons, whose long-awaited report on council tax reform should be submitted to the government in March.

Depending on what he recommends - and what a likely Gordon Brown-led government would accept - it could still be three or four years before any new system is introduced.

How much an average Band D bill would cost after the rise

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