Devon County Council freezes tax for third year running
Devon County Council froze its council tax for the third successive year amid claims the authority is spending £1million each year on "PR, media and spin."
The Conservative council – which collects 75% of all council tax bills in the county – has set its annual budget for 2013/14 at £521million.
This is a reduction of £14 million from last year, and will leave its share of bills for a Band D property unchanged at £1,116.36.
In return for not hiking bills the Government will hand over a compensation figure to the council of £3.3million over each of the two coming financial years.
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Council leader John Hart described the spending plan as a "steady as we go" budget, which was "good for the people of Devon".
"A council tax rise of just 1.98% in four years is unique for Devon and something we should be proud of, he told a meeting yesterday.
Councillors agreed the financial settlement in front of a near empty public gallery at County Hall in Exeter yesterday, in contrast to past budget meetings which have seen vocal campaigns and angry demonstrations.
The debate saw what was labelled political campaigning ahead of May's county council elections, with Labour calling for a living wage to be introduced, a measure rejected by Mr Hart as a matter for central Government which would add £1million to the council's wage bill.
Critics accused the council of "ducking the big issues" and producing a plan which would see council services "wither on the vine".
Lib Dem Julian Brazil said parts of Devon would see rises in council tax, despite the county freeze, such as Conservative South Hams where bills were to rise by 3.5% while councillor allowances also went up"
"We have got a budget meeting with the public gallery empty – that is because you are ducking the issues," he added.
"It is steady as we go but right over the precipice."
Alternative plans by the opposition Liberal Democrats to scrap "stealth taxes" introduced by the Tory administration such as a "tip tax" at recycling centres were also rejected.
Lib Dem leader Des Hannon backed the council tax freeze but called for a £250,000 reduction in communications spending – describing it as spin – and for residents' parking permit charges to be reduced.
"We want more investment in flood alleviation, food safety and improved grass cutting and weed control throughout the county," he said.
"The Tories' tip tax has led to an increase in fly tipping and is not helping recycling rates."
Accusations of spin were angrily denied by cabinet member Andrew Leadbetter, who said the bill had been halved from the £2million spent under the Lib Dems.
In setting the budget the council was responding to a 28% cut in grant income from the Government.
There was cross-party criticism for Whitehall officials after the recent settlement was not finally agreed until last week, making budgeting difficult.