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Surrey abandons 15% council tax rise plan in hopes of Whitehall social care fix

Surrey County Council has performed a last minute climbdown on its plan to raise council tax by 15%, instead recommending a rise of just under 5% at its full 2017-18 budget meeting.

The council had considered holding a referendum on the rise, arguing that “relentless” central government cuts and rising demand put the council’s vital services at risk, with social care and children’s services making up two-thirds of the council’s budget.

However, the authority has now compromised with a rise of 4.99% on trust that the government is planning a longer-term solution to the social care crisis, negating the need for a vote on the rise. 

“It’s clear that Surrey is an extreme example of how increases in social care demands impact on local communities and on the health service,” Surrey CC’s leader Cllr David Hodge told the council meeting.

“The government has listened and we believe that the government now understands. We are therefore willing to take a risk that a solution will soon be found to the issues that all councils face.

“However, if there isn’t any progress in finding a solution to the adult social care crisis, our situation will become untenable.”

The U-turn comes as a shock as budget papers prepared for the meeting still proposed the vote on the rise, with the cabinet unanimously backing the proposal only last week.

However, a set of revised recommendations issued by Hodge instead advised the council to agree a rise of 4.99% – a 1.99% rise plus the 3% social care precept, the maximum amount currently possible for councils without consulting residents.

The revised budget plan will now be voted on, but Hodge emphasised that the planned 4.99% rise would still require the council to make £93m in cuts over the next year.

Victory for the council in the referendum was unlikely as such measures have only had a negative response – with the only precedent set by Bedfordshire’s police and crime commissioner, whose referendum to increase its council tax precept by 15.8% in 2015 brought an emphatic defeat.

Liverpool considered polling residents on a 10% council tax rise last year in order to help raise £90m over the next three years. However, Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson’s idea was vetoed after participants in an online consultation said they would not support such a deal.

The County Councils Network (CCN) warned that increasing numbers of county authorities face “extremely difficult choices” in balancing their books after years of funding cuts and rising demand for services.

“The situation for all county authorities, such as Surrey, is made worse by the historic underfunding of rural areas and higher demand for care services, forcing residents to pay higher council tax for fewer services compared to urban areas,” said Simon Edwards, director of the CCN.

Edwards added that the government must deliver new social care funding in next month’s Budget and bring forward its review to council funding to help county authorities and provide them with “genuinely fair” resources.

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