Shropshire Council rejects plea to explore views on a council tax referendum

At the Shropshire Council meeting yesterday, councillors debated a motion that would have required Shropshire Council’s officers to research the willingness of people in Shropshire for a referendum on a council tax rise above 1.99%. The motion was put forward by myself and seconded by follow Lib Dem Hannah Fraser, who represents Abbey ward in Shrewsbury.

The motion arose from calls from town and parish councils for Shropshire Council to raise council tax to avoid huge rises in parish precepts. Ludlow Town Council’s mayor has been vocal in calling for a rise in council tax to prevent the burden for services that serve a wide area falling on Ludlow ratepayers alone.

Regrettably, the motion was all but lost.

Not all town and parish councils support a referendum. Some are not actively engaged in the debate on Shropshire Council’s plans to transfer services to local councils. Others believe the costs of a countywide referendum – which is variously estimated as costing between £600,000 and £800,000 – is not justified.

My concern has been that Shropshire Council hasn’t held a debate on this issue. The purpose behind the council motion was trigger that debate. The proposal was not to run a referendum but to research the appetite amongst town and parish councils and council tax payers for a larger hike in council tax than planned.[1] The research would use existing mechanisms and would have no budget implications. It would engage the council with town and parish councils in line with page 7 of Shropshire Council’s new corporate plan agreed at the same council meeting.

The motion was all but destroyed by a Conservative delaying amendment. This proposes that the council doesn’t commit to action until the new government makes a declaration on changes to council tax, including whether the referendum cap of 1.99% would be raised or abolished. Neither Sajid Javid, the new communities secretary, or the Treasury have signalled that any action will be taken to give councils more freedom on council tax. It could be months before they look at this issue and then they may well decide not to make changes.

The council debate yesterday was not particularly constructive and the Conservative amendment was carried on political lines. The Conservatives voted for it, Labour abstained, the Independents were split and the Lib Dems were against.

My view is that this amendment has kicked into touch any action on seeking views on additional council tax rises. There is no realistic prospect of Shropshire Council holding a referendum on a council tax or even sounding out public opinion on the issue.

Many will welcome that because they cannot afford or do not want to pay even more council tax. But several councils, including Ludlow, had asked for a referendum. I think Shropshire Council should have explored this more before rejecting it on political grounds.

Original Motion

Town and parish councils have called for a referendum on raising council tax above 1.99%. A rise in the unitary tax rate would reduce the need for large increases in local precepts. It would also lead to a fairer distribution of costs. Under current plans, the residents of market towns such as Ludlow face paying extra for services that are used by people from a wide hinterland.

This motion requires officers of Shropshire Council to explore the willingness of people in Shropshire for a referendum on a council tax rise above 1.99%. Officers are requested to do this using:

1) The Big Conversation

2) Discussions with town and parish councils

3) Local press and broadcast media.

4) Any other ways that they feel will enable communities and local residents to let councillors know their preference.

The outcome of this exercise should be reported back to the September meeting of this council.

Amended Motion

Town and parish councils have called for a referendum on raising council tax above 1.99%. A rise in the unitary tax rate would reduce the need for large increases in local precepts. It would also lead to a fairer distribution of costs. Under current plans, the residents of market towns such as Ludlow face paying extra for services that are used by people from a wide hinterland.

This motion requires officers of Shropshire Council to explore the willingness of people in Shropshire for a referendum on a council tax rise above 1.99%.

However owing to the fact that a new Conservative government and Cabinet has so recently been appointed, Council recommends that no action should be considered with regard to investigating the case for adjustments to Council tax until the Government’s intentions on this issue become clearer.

[1].  Currently Shropshire Council is planning to raise council tax by 1.99% a year over the next four years. On top of this, it will charge an extra 2% annually for adult social care.