LOOMING TAX RISES: Stockton politicians at loggerheads
A SIMMERING row over looming rate rises in Stockton has boiled over after an MP slammed a Teesside council for “taxing like there is no tomorrow”.
Stockton South MP Matt Vickers tore into Stockton Council in the House of Commons on Monday in a debate on council tax.
But council leader Bob Cook has hit back – laying into the Government for cutbacks in the past decade and accusing Whitehall of failing to stump up cash for social care.
Officials are working behind the scenes on what sort of tax rise will go to the vote at Stockton Council next month.
Authorities will have the power to raise taxes by 5% in April – with 3% of this made up of a “social care levy”.
No decision has been lined up or made yet in Stockton – but leaders have warned a “very difficult” decision is looming on rates after criticising the Government for insufficient funding.
Mr Vickers, who remains a Conservative councillor for Hartburn, told the Commons Stockton had received an extra £110m during the pandemic – and backed his Government’s funding to help authorities with lost revenue.
But he also believed the Labour-led council would “continue to tax like there is no tomorrow and spend like no-one is watching” – later pointing to tax rises of 20% in the borough in the past five years.
The Tory MP said: “Not only are residents asked to pay more, the council is getting its priorities wrong – slashing spending on youth services while we have seen increased spending on press and communications, more on events, and more on fireworks.”
The rising cost of the long-awaited Globe Theatre project – which is due to open in spring – was also criticised by Mr Vickers.
He added: “We have seen my council spend £1,900 on a rusty metal door, £62,000 on a pair of bollards, and around £10,000 a year on VIP soirées where councillors can eat and drink for free.
“An allowance scheme has seen the chair and vice-chair of committees receive as much as £1,500 per meeting between them – even if they do not bother to turn up.
“And we have seen council officers fly out at taxpayers’ expense to watch street theatre performed in Montpellier, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
“Councils have a moral responsibility to those on limited and fixed incomes to justify every penny they spend.
“It is right that locally elected councillors can make decisions about local taxation and spending, but with such rights come responsibilities.”
“He can’t have it both ways”
Last week, leader Cllr Bob Cook accused the Government of “playing a trick” on councils for the lack of cash they’d offered up – and claims Whitehall had boosted their spending power by 4.5% .
He told colleagues 85% of this boost had assumed Stockton put up rates by the maximum 5%.
At the time, he added: “If we do raise it that much, there are complaints about how much the council is putting up tax.”
There were also warnings the authority would face cuts if it didn’t put up tax again.
Cabinet member Cllr Lisa Evans said: “What we’re asking for our residents to do should rest firmly at this Government’s door.”
Cllr Cook hit back at Mr Vickers’s criticisms – pointing to how neighbouring Conservative-run Darlington was planning to put up council tax by 4%.
The Labour leader said: “I don’t know whether Matt Vickers is confused or whether it’s deliberate spin because on one hand he’s boasting about the Government providing unrivalled funding to the council – funding that would largely have to be raised through an increase in council tax – while at the same time calling for there to be no increase in council tax.
“He can’t have it both ways.”
Fairer funding plea
Cllr Cook said a “fair and long-term funding deal” would shield residents from a tax rise – and criticised the Government for “passing the financial burden” of national problems in social care to local taxpayers.
“That’s something that’s in danger of getting lost here,” he added.
“Councils can only put council tax up by 2% – but for the last few years we’ve had the Government telling councils they can charge an adult social care levy on top of any council tax increase, rather than grasping the nettle and funding adult social care nationally.
“When Mr Vickers points to a council tax increase of more than 20 per cent over the last five years, around half of that increase is made up of his Government’s own adult social care levy
“So to lay it at the council’s door is misleading to say the least.”
The Labour chief said £73m had been cut from the council’s budget in the past 11 years.
He believed any suggestion “one-off covid funding” compensated for this was an “insult to people’s intelligence”.
Cllr Cook added: “It’s like taking a car off someone then returning the wheels and expecting them to thank you for it.
“And it’s not just me saying this – you’ve got council leaders across the country and from across the political divides calling for a fairer and more sustainable way of funding local services.”
Meeting tomorrow night
Cash spent on flights to the continent for council staff “to watch shows” came under fire in 2018 when it was revealed £850 was spent on trips to the continent the previous year.
In 2015, the council spent around £10,000 on VIP functions for councillors and their guests.
It sparked a motion from Cllr Vickers in 2016 calling for an end to the taxpayer-funded “soirees”.
Cllr Cook hit back at the time, saying the Conservative member was “painting a misleading picture” of glitzy events – adding they were civic events hosted by the mayor for business representatives, charities, schools and volunteers.
Meanwhile, Wednesday night’s council meeting is set to hear the Conservative group question money given to deputy committee leaders ahead of a vote on an allowances freeze next year.
Last week, group leader Cllr Tony Riordan said: “At the moment, the executive scrutiny committee has six meetings a year and there is nearly £9,500 spread between the chair and the vice chair.
“That’s roughly £1,500 of public money per meeting – it’s not right.”
The meeting will start at 6pm.
Words: Alex Metcalfe, Local Democracy Reporter
Watch the channel on TV