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Last Updated: Friday, 6 February, 2004, 11:33 GMT
'Many councils plan big tax hike'
Council tax rises have sparked protests in recent weeks
Council tax is set to rise by more than inflation in most of England's local authorities, according to a new survey.

More than three-quarters of unitary councils and 70% of county councils intend rises of over 5%, suggests the Local Government Chronicle survey.

This is despite ministers' threats to use capping powers to limit rises.

The survey is only partial and not based on final figures, but it comes in the wake of protests about council tax rises.

Rise differences

The Local Government Chronicle says it is surveying all England's councils and has received responses from the first 74.

Many unitary councils are planning double-digit tax rises, it says.

But most of the county councils involved in the survey predict rises of between five and seven per cent.

Council tax explained

Two-thirds of London boroughs are planning tax increases of over 5% says the survey.

But in metropolitan councils, serving Britain's big cities, only 16.6% are planning rises outside the government's target zone, says the survey.

And it suggests only a quarter of district councils intend such increases.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the Local Government Association, said many councils would keep rises to 5% but some faced real difficulties.

"It is a bit early in the process to be very firm about this, the early suggestions always suggest a higher level than eventually emerges," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'Let voters decide'

Government had increased funding for councils but how much of it was used was tightly controlled, said Sir Jeremy.

As council tax makes up only a quarter of authorities' income, there was a multiplier effect when they wanted to raise more cash, he said.

Sir Jeremy said he opposed capping, adding: "We believe that we should be answerable to those who elect us rather than those in Whitehall."

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister says it cannot comment on tax rises until it receives the final figures.

A spokeswoman told BBC News Online: "Our position still stands that we do have capping powers and we will use them if necessary."

Later, Downing Street said a 3.7bn funding increase meant councils should be able to keep rises down.

Charity fears

Councils face difficult decisions over preserving local services and avoiding the government caps.

Some authorities are warning that funding to charities and voluntary groups could be cut in the drive to make savings.

Tony Travers, an expert in local government at the London School of Economics, told the Times newspaper councils had to save millions of pounds.

"They can't cut education because otherwise they will have the wrath of [Education Secretary] Charles Clarke upon them," he said.

"Therefore, they will have to find the savings from the non-statutory services, such as voluntary groups, parks and gardens, and street lighting."

Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said there was already a squeeze on small and medium-sized groups which could be worsened by council cuts.

"Charities provide essential services to the most disadvantaged in our communities and by cutting their funding local residents will be the ones that suffer," he warned.

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