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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 11:31 GMT
The lessons of Council Tax referendums
Counting votes in Bristol
Bristol held a vote on council taxes last year
The evidence from the first batch of local Council Tax referendums suggests Tony Blair may have his work cut out to persuade the public to pay more for a better NHS.

In three out of four boroughs where the public has had the chance to choose between lower council taxes or better services, voters have plumped for the lowest tax option available.

Referendums held
Milton Keynes: 1999
Bristol: 2001
Croydon: 2001/2002
The flag bearer of the exercise in direct democracy, Croydon, saw a 35% turnout for this year's council tax referendum - up 5% on last year.

But there was little doubt about the result - with a 74% majority opting for the lowest proposed rise of 3.65%.

Another borough which tried it - Bristol - last year saw 53% voting for the choice causing least damage to their pockets - in that case a complete freeze.

'Icing on the cake'

This year, however, it was Croydon alone which repeated the exercise.

Croydon Council leader Hugh Malyan is proud his authority is the only borough in the country to "give this opportunity to its residents".

But the referendum, held in tandem with a vote on housing rents, cost 150,000.

David Maddison, project officer at the Local Government Association, said such votes were the "icing on the cake" that most councils simply could not afford.

He suggested there could be more of such votes when interactive television voting became more widespread.

Dividing lines

Mr Maddison said research in towns and cities holding the votes suggested the more wealthy wards had opted for the higher tax rises, with deprived wards choosing the smallest rises.

Both the Bristol and Milton Keynes referendums captured media attention but neither council has repeated the exercise.

In Milton Keynes, in 1999, there was a 44% turnout and it was understood the vote was essentially a one-off as councillors tried to redress what were seen as historically low tax bills.

Bucking the general trend, 70% of voters in the town chose the two higher options and taxes went up by almost 10%.

Bristol's council leader has said "opinion" is too divided and there is not the kind of consensus needed for a referendum.

Best practice advice

The government argues referendums are one way councils can undertake essential consultation on increasing taxes and improving services.

Together with the LGA and council experts, the local government department is compiling guidelines for best practices, including advice on how to hold referendums.

But referendums for adopting a system of elected mayors have cost a reported 2.5m while turnouts have averaged only 30%.

So those who hope the UK will move towards the Swiss model of a more direct democracy have still to engage the public on an idea aimed at re-engaging people with politics.

And worryingly for a Labour government which seems set to stand on a tax rise platform for the first time since their general election defeat of 1992 - when voters to get engaged it often seems a primary concern is anything which might hit their wallet.

See also:

03 Jan 02 | UK Politics
The UK and referendums
17 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Bristol voters say no to tax increase
29 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Council holds tax referendum
24 Feb 99 | UK Politics
Milton Keynes votes for tax hike
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