by Rachel Saker
SURREY County Leader David Hodge took a sudden U-turn on Tuesday when plans for a referendum on what would have been the highest council tax hike in the country were scrapped.
Due to drastic Government cutbacks on the county’s social care services, the Full Conservative-led Council had expected to vote on the 15% increase, which Woking’s MP Jonathan Lord had endorsed. The stark message put across to the public had been to vote for the rise or essential services will be cut.
The cabinet had approved the proposal on 31 January, which meant that if it had been voted for at Tuesday’s Full Council meeting, the decision would have gone to a referendum on 4 May.
However, the meeting was adjourned three times before Councillor Hodge instead replaced the 15% hike recommendation with 4.99%. It meant that a decision could be made there and then by the council. Anything above a 5% increase would have required a referendum.
A total of 72 councillors voted for the motion, while 18 were against, which included Liberal Democrats, Independents and Labour.
Conservative County Councillor Saj Hussain told the News & Mail: “I am pleased we have been able to come up with a sustainable budget at 4.99%. The initial 15% recommendation was to safeguard the future, but we have been assured of a fair funding selection looking at Surrey’s social needs going forward. There will be no compromise when it comes to social care.”
But angry Labour Councillor Robert Evans said: “Today [Tuesday] has been a shambles. The leader knows it and the Conservatives know it.
“We need proper answers. One minute we’re told that Council Tax will have to go up by 15% and that ‘there is no alternative’ if we want to provide proper adult social care, and the next minute we’re told it’s not necessary.”
“Just what has the Government offered? There must have been eleventh hour discussions today, with all the delays and adjournments, so what have they said?”
Lib Dem Leader Hazel Watson claimed that Surrey’s budget has been a ‘disaster’, adding that Councillor Hodge had cancelled an ‘unwinnable’ referendum.
She condemned the budget as ‘a charade’ and that she was ‘astonished that no new Government money was announced to plug the gap in finances’.
She added: “Liberal Democrats and Surrey residents, thousands of whom signed a petition, have forced the Conservatives to back down from their unpopular and unaffordable 15% council tax hike. But there is no certainty over where the money will come from to avoid drastic cuts to essential services.
“This is a sign of panic designed to save Tory seats in the elections in May. They are gambling with the county’s finances as they have failed to provide any details of how the budget is sustainable next year, let alone in the next few years. The Leader of the Council has presented us with no figures, no plan, and no idea of where the money will come from.
“The reality is that the finances will remain in a poor condition until a fairer funding arrangement for vital adult social care services is agreed with Government. That is what Lib Dems are calling for today and that is what was wholly missing from today’s Conservative budget.”