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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 February, 2004, 16:56 GMT
Councils warned over tax plans
Protest against council tax
Rising council tax bills have seen protests around the country
Council leaders planning big tax rises have been told by ministers the public will no longer tolerate soaring bills.

A council proposing a 33% hike was among 11 called this week to meet Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford.

But West Oxfordshire District Council blamed the government for the rise, pointing out it was being "punished" despite having one of the lowest taxes.

Mr Raynsford described the talks as "constructive" and was optimistic many councils would revise their plans.

A survey by the Times newspaper suggests council tax will rise by an average of 7% this year, but the final figures will only be known next month.

Council tax last year rose by a record average of 12.9%.

A proposed increase of 33% flies in the face of public expectations
Nick Raynsford
Local Government Minister

Pensioner groups have protested about the tax, saying their pensions cannot meet the costs of the rises.

The meetings came as ex-minister and key Blair ally Stephen Byers prepared to attack the council tax as "unfair" and argue business does not pay its share of local spending.

Poorer people are paying a contribution disproportionate to their wealth and the council tax must be replaced, Mr Byers will say in a speech on Thursday.

Mr Prescott has described Mr Byers' remarks as the "private musings of a backbencher".

The government's search continues for a way of countering concern about the current council tax system.

But the immediate issue is whether ministers will cap council tax rises as they have threatened this year.

Council tax explained

Mr Raynsford has already written to 65 councils warning them to lower their figures and is now talking to some of the worst offenders.

He told BBC News 24 the provisional figures suggested rises would be less than half those seen last year and he hoped that trend would continue.

"The public will not frankly tolerate further large increases after the unacceptable rises of last year," he said.

'Ridiculous demands'

Mr Raynsford on Wednesday met leaders from West Oxfordshire District Council, which is proposing a 33% hike.

The council's leader, Barry Norton, said the minister had acknowledged the council was managing its finances well but the public would only see the percentage rise figure.

"It is ridiculous the government seeks to intervene in our affairs when we are one of the lowest charging councils in the country," said Councillor Norton.

"We simply want to go on providing good services at the lowest possible cost.

"If the government wants to keep the council tax down it should stop imposing more and more bureaucracy on local councils."

Unfunded government demands on issues like more recycling were other reasons for the rise, he added.

Changes ahead

Some newspaper reports have suggested ministers are considering replacing council tax with a new system mixing property and income tax.

But Mr Raynsford told the newspaper: "No one has suggested that."

Other suggestions apparently being considered are for Whitehall to give back control of business rates to councils and tweaking the existing tax to take account of people's income.

The Conservatives say crude capping could put at risk key services for vulnerable people often provided by voluntary groups with council funding.

The Liberal Democrats are using the current row to push their proposal for a local income tax, which they argue would be much fairer.

The Local Government Association, which represents all councils, opposes capping, saying local politicians should answer to their voters rather than Whitehall.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"The council tax in England has become increasingly controversial"

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