The Greens have made their case for a 5.9 per cent rise in council tax in Brighton and Hove in the annual budget debate.
Council leader Jason Kitcat, proposing the rise, said that demand for services was growing as was the population, especially the number of over 85s.
Councillor Kitcat told the annual budget meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council that this was happening at a time of unprecedented cuts to council funding.
At Hove Town Hall, he quoted the Financial Times saying that local government spending had fallen by 55 per cent in real terms. This was more, he said, than any other part of the government. Councils were at risk of buckling.
And he said that cuts to council spending were destined to continue until 2020 regardless of whether the Conservatives or Labour formed the next government.
He said: “Labour will say the distribution will be fairer but that most likely means more money going to their northern heartlands and less for us here.”
Councillor Kitcat criticised the government’s austerity agenda. He pointed to countries such as America and Germany and said that their more Keynesian approach, investing in capital spending during the recession, had kept their economies going.
The government had realised this late in the day, he said, with the resumption of capital investment in Britain.
He added: “We are under pressure for the long term. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes.
“The short-term gimmicks of tax freezes leave us poorer in the long term and permanently devalue our tax base making any future rises worth less.
“We can’t undo the tax freezes Labour and Tories imposed on this city.”
Brighton and Hove’s economy was doing well, he said, but public services could not meet expectations and demand if people pretended that the crunch wasn’t there.
He said: “The Tory tax freeze is a pre-election giveaway that we can ill-afford.
“We will hear lots about amendments from the opposition. These are fiddling round the edges.”
Councillor Kitcat accused his opponents of mostly one-off showmanship, pushing decisions back until after the election at the expense of reserves, pension funds and essential teams which save the council money.
“They are the worst kind of political gimmickry,” he said, “and they do this city a disservice. And they representing something like 0.001 per cent of the budget before us.”
He added that the dearth of meaningful alternatives from the other side showed that the Greens were on the right track.
And he said: “It’s clear that the best measures of public opinion favour increasing council tax to protect services.
“So let’s trust the people of this city to put public service first, to put care for the vulnerable first.”
He said that the arguments from opposition members that no one would vote for a council tax rise in a referendum was despondent and downhearted.
Councillor Kitcat added: “People in this city are selfless and generous every day in the support of each other and their communities.
“I believe in Brighton. Let the people decide to protect our public services. Support the referendum budget.”
He was seconded by Councillor Ollie Sykes, who said: “It’s different this year. The cuts imposed by the government are deeper.
“Deficit reduction is with us for the foreseeable future but austerity is an ideological choice.
“A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee warned that councils could be in danger of breaking the law because funding cuts are putting crucial services at risk.
Councillor Sykes said that the government was pursuing a housing policy that serves only to feed a bubble, causing spiralling rents and an escalating housing benefit bill.
“Meanwhile,” he said, “homelessness is up 30 per cent since 2010.
“This is not rational economics. It’s cynical ideology.
“When there’s light at the end of the economic tunnel, George (Osborne) says build more tunnel.
“I don’t think the Tories are even primarily interested in deficit reduction in any case but rather a set of policies that buy votes, create a shrunken state, encourage the making of a quick buck and that hurt – literally – those without a voice.
“Our message to government is quite clear: priorities need to change.
“But back to Brighton and Hove … I just want to visit some of the hyperbole that arises in budget speeches we hear in this room and elsewhere.
“This administration is accused of high costs and inefficiency.
“How many people manage 300 outdoor events annually? Three. 26,000 street lighting assets? Three. Fifteen major projects such as Stanmer Park regeneration, Royal Pavilion restoration? Four. Thirteen kilometres of coast protection? Three.
“Yes, there are some areas of high spend, and guess what – they’re often very high performing.
“Of course, we must keep costs down and there are numerous active initiatives across the council under the value for money programme.
He criticised other councils, including Adur and Worthing for paying three officers more than £200,000 a year – “way more than our highest paid officer”.
Councillor Sykes said: “We’re told that (a council tax rise of) 5.9 per cent pushes more people into poverty.”
He said that the average rise in council tax over the previous ten years had been 8.3 per cent. And that the opposition changes to the council tax reduction scheme had meant a rise of 76 per cent in bills for some of the poorest people in Brighton and Hove.
“Democracy doesn’t begin and end at elections,” Councillor Sykes said. “This council prides itself on listening to residents and responding to requests.
“Residents have clearly shown in our own consultation that they want a chance to vote on a council tax rise.
“We’re informed that Labour’s is the sensible middle of the road position.
He said that the difference between Labour’s proposed 2 per cent rise and the Conservatives’ proposed council tax freeze was about £900,000.
The difference between the Tory and Green position was, he said, £5.3 million.
“£5.3 million protects funding for a lot of essential services.
“Labour’s position is not middle of the road. They’re on the Tory side of the street, close to the pavement.”
Councillor Sykes said that a 5.9 per cent council tax rise would allow the Green-led council to protect a range of services that people want and need, with a focus on the most vulnerable.
A survey of 3,000 households showed that 61 per cent of respondents favoured a council tax rise, he said, adding: “This provides all of us with a mandate to put the question formally and to ask residents whether or not they would like to pay £1.32 a week more to save £5 million worth of services they cherish.
“And more importantly it shows that they may well say yes.
“All councillors want to protect services, especially for those in the city that need our support most.
“I know there is a variety of views within all parties about how best to achieve this.
“Maybe just for this debate we can forget about elections and do what’s best for our residents and what’s best for our city.”