Lowest rise in Norfolk council tax bills

Householders across Norfolk were yesterday promised the lowest ever hike in council tax bills as part of a controversial finance package which will see �25.

Householders across Norfolk were yesterday promised the lowest ever hike in council tax bills as part of a controversial finance package which will see �25.6m cut from services this year - and more savings to come.

Conservative-run Norfolk county council signalled the start of a cost-cutting drive while also proposing to raise council tax bills for its share of services by only 1.9pc in the coming financial year.

That means the county council's share of the council tax bill will be �21.33 a year or 41p a week for an average band D home.

Council leader Daniel Cox also promised to freeze council tax levels for two years beyond that, while downgrading forecasts of a �140m future funding gap between now and 2013 to �115m.

Thousands of council staff will also see their pay frozen in the next financial year while 65 jobs are set to go and more could follow as part of a backroom shake-up.

Mr Cox said the budget was designed to steer a course through the current economic storm while protecting vital front-line services, and there would be investment in some areas including strategic projects such as the Norwich northern bypass and the Hethel Engineering Centre, and 18 new children's centres.

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“This is not a budget without risk or the potential for pain in some areas,” Mr Cox said. “But careful planning will allow us to continue to make progress on all the key objectives we have set for the authority.

“The full weight of the recession is now apparent, and the public sector will have to weather what some people are describing as the 'perfect storm' - a global recession, diminishing public sector finance and more people relying on crucial front-line services,” he added.

“We also understand that it is not just public bodies who face tough times ahead, which is why this budget will see the lowest council tax increase in the authority's history and we are promising no increase for the following two years.”

The spending plan, which will be considered by the ruling cabinet on Monday before a full council vote, will see cuts of more than �10m in both adult and children's services departments including selling off some day centres used by people with learning difficulties, cutting a bathing service subsidy, and freezing grants to voluntary organisations and independent care groups.

For youngsters there are also plans to cut �1.3m from the home to schools and special needs transport budgets, and cutting �2.4m by reducing expensive out of county placements for children in care.

A controversial move to switch off hundreds of street lights in the early hours in a bid to cut energy costs and carbon emissions is also planned.

Opposition councillors said that the plans, could hit some of the most vulnerable in the county most, while most of the investment was based on projects largely funded by the government.

Paul Morse, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said the changes were politically driven and some of the cuts could have been avoided if the administration had not run into trouble on a range of issues including the scrapping of a multi-million pound waste contract, and investments with Iceland banks.

“There are a lot of gimmicks,” Mr Morse said. “I worry that as the public sector feels the impact of the financial crises the vulnerable will find themselves increasingly at risk.”

Andrew Boswell, leader of the Green Group, said the cuts were not sustainable and was alarmed at the pressure being placed on social services chiefs to cut costs and privatise care.

“I've been very concerned about some of the things that have been happening such as outsourcing,” he said. “They can't just address the growing need for care by putting it out to the private sector and expect people to be able to manage their own budgets.”