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Last Updated: Monday, 5 January, 2004, 06:57 GMT
Council's spending tightrope

By Chris Rogers
BBC South West Political Editor

It was only a temporary respite and, anyway, the shadow of tough budget decisions was always lurking in the background of the festivities.

Now hard reality has kicked in once more and next year's council tax is a pressing issue again.

On Monday, 10 of Devon's county councillors, the all-party Executive, will knuckle down to the job of matching up income and spending in the next financial year.

Put like that, it sounds easy, but the financial and political complications of local government spending and money-raising make it one of the most heart-searching, mind-bending and frustrating of jobs in the public service arena.

We will have to compromise
Council leader Brian Greenslade

At the meeting in County Hall in Exeter, the councillors will not make any decisions about the precise level of council tax to be levied on the 700,000 council tax-payers in Devon. That will not come until next month.

But they will start the detailed process of setting the budgets for each of the council's activities, from education and social services to roads, libraries, economic development and street lighting.

They know what they would like to do to improve services and meet expectations. But according to the report which will be waiting for them on their desks, this would cost 633m - and that's impossible.

Council leader Brian Greenslade, said: "However much we would like to set the budget at this level, it's simply not affordable.

"We will have to compromise."

Pensioners' protest

Mr Greenslade and his colleagues are still bruised by last year's budget-setting, when a total budget of a mere 616m was only achieved by putting up the council tax by a massive 17.9%.

He justifies that move because the majority of services were protected, but it led to an unprecedented protest from pensioners who found the increase unaffordable.

The protest went national and has grown, with several hundred Devon pensioners still refusing to pay all the increase and talking of forming a party to stand in local elections to publicise their cause.

The councillors now find themselves caught in a classic pincer movement. On one side are protesting taxpayers who want services but no more tax increases.

My vote would be for an income related tax
Christine, Exmouth

On the other is an increasingly worried national government which still pays for the bulk of the budget and is warning the council its financial plan will be capped if it means next year's council tax increases would then be "excessive".

It is not surprising then when Brian Greenslade adds: "We'll have to spend a lot of time finding a sensible compromise between protecting essential services and a council tax level which recognises the low income levels in our county."

One decision has already been made.

Education, the biggest amount on the annual bill, will get all the money the government says it should.

Life should also be eased slightly by the extra 4.3m that Gordon Brown doled out to Devon last month, specifically to keep down next year's tax.

But councillors say it still means Devon is getting the third lowest percentage grant increase of any shire county, and if Devon's council tax increases are to be kept down to single figures, then cuts in jobs and services may still be necessary.

Monday's meeting is the first step on that short but difficult journey to set next year's council tax that will culminate in the full council meeting next month.

After that, expect a boost to two campaigns.

The first by the pensioners, who will find any increase at all unacceptable.

The second, by the county council itself, to change the whole heart-aching system of how we pay for what we use.




SEE ALSO:
Tax raises tough choices
05 Jan 04  |  Devon
4.3m given to council
12 Dec 03  |  Devon
Pensioner tax plan scrapped
18 Nov 03  |  Kent
South West: Spend a penny?
24 Oct 03  |  Politics Show


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