For those of us who have come up through the ranks of local government, we know only too well that local councils decide on local increases to council tax. There are parameters to work within to protect tax payers, but I welcome the fact that local councils make local decisions and that local democracy gives them the power to do that. It will be for them to set their council tax rates. I would be the first to say that all councils must think very hard about what they do this year, recognising the immense stresses that many constituents are under.
I thank all the staff and the officers at Norfolk County Council and North Norfolk District Council for all they have been doing during the pandemic. It is a pleasure to work so closely with so many of them. What the Government propose here with a core spending power increase of 4.6% in cash terms next year is a significant step forward and is one of the larger increases in council funding in the past five years. This is worth an estimated additional £2.2 billion in funding for local government services. We should not underestimate the fact that the Government have already given local councils around £8 billion in extra funding for a range of services so councils can support the most vulnerable during this pandemic.
While this is only right, councils must play their part and run themselves efficiently in delivering services, not waste taxpayers’ money. A well-run council should behave like a well-run business: its residents are its shareholders, and councillors are just as accountable for their decisions. Well-run councils build up reserves to ensure that they can support and weather the most difficult of challenges. This is what had happened under the Conservatives’ control in North Norfolk. No one prepares for a pandemic, but to a large extent the Government have compensated councils for the additional costs they have had to bear.
It is worth noting that my local council, North Norfolk District Council, when it was Conservative-controlled put up council tax just once in seven years, but when the Liberal Democrats took control it took them just a matter of months before they increased taxes. Sadly, my constituents have watched as the Liberal Democrat administration has wasted vast quantities of taxpayers’ money on a redundancy and reorganisation programme throughout the pandemic, not to mention cancelling Conservative-initiated projects during their tenure which, as we emerge from the pandemic, would have contributed greatly to the district—over half a million pounds of local people’s money wasted, while actually proposing very little themselves. It is an administration devoid of ideas, and many will tell themselves, when their council tax bills increase, how all that wasted money could so easily have been put towards softening the blow and alleviating some of the council tax rises they will have to pay.
Within this local government finance settlement, we have the largest rural services delivery grant ever—an increase of £4 million or 4.9% on last year—and this funding will be gladly received in sparsely populated rural local authorities such as mine. On that note, it has been mentioned that councils with seasonal economies like mine could be negatively affected by the structuring of the sales, fees and charges scheme, because they might receive a large proportion of their annual income in the period from April to June and this would not be reflected in the compensation they will receive through the scheme. Could the Minister update us, in his closing remarks, on what action he is going to take on this?
Everyone in society will be affected by this pandemic, and councils will be no different, but the Government have in real terms increased funding to them. Yes, local decision makers need to look hard at what they will do with the council tax, but no one can argue that the Government have not done a seismic job in giving them the very best tools to manage this pandemic.