Minister Brandon Lewis: Cornwall Council is 'democracy-dodging'
Cornwall Council has been condemned by a Government minister for hiking council tax to a "hair's breadth" beneath the local referendum threshold.
Earlier this month, officials recommended snubbing a Whitehall handout to the equivalent of a 1% tax increase if they froze the levy in return.
Instead, the council, controlled by a Tory-led coalition, has proposed raising council tax by 1.97% in April – the equivalent of around an extra £25 a year for an average household.
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If the authority wanted to push the charge up by 2% or more it would be forced to hold a referendum in Cornwall.
Conservative Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: "Every local resident will be dismayed by this flagrant democracy-dodging.
"Cornwall Council is doing hard-working families and pensioners a real disservice by raising their council tax to a hair's breadth below the trigger level in order to avoid a public vote instead of taking up this Government's offer to help fund a freeze for the third year in a row."
He continued: "Increasing council tax at this time is wrong. Councillors trying to undercut democracy in this way will find out what residents really think about their money being snatched money away on the doorstep or through a kick in the ballot box."
Asked for a comment, Cornwall Council provided a statement issued last week. Council leader Jim Currie argues raising the tax is the "only option" to protect frontline services.
Alex Folkes, deputy leader of the council's Liberal Democrat group, said: "Whatever your position on the right balance between council tax and frontline services, what is clear is that it should be a decision taken by Cornwall councillors in Cornwall. Yet again, Tory ministers are at war with a Tory council.
"Cornwall councillors are all up for election this coming May and will have to persuade their local electors that the position they have taken is the right one.
"All too often Tory ministers seem to be keen to dictate to local councils what they should be doing when perhaps they should be concentrating on getting their own house in order."
Cornwall Council has complained it has been left with an additional £6.4 million financial black-hole after changes, including being charged with distributing council tax benefit – previously a Westminster responsibility. It already had to make savings of £24 million during 2013-2014.
Councillors will vote on the plans next month.
Mr Currie said previously: "We appreciate that many people are already struggling to pay their bills but the scale of the financial challenges we are facing means that increasing council tax is the only option if we want to continue to provide a full range of services for people in Cornwall."
Economists have warned of councils facing a "cliff-edge" effect of accepting the money to freeze bills. If they cap bills one year, the hike will be even higher the year after if the money disappears.
Councillors across Devon and Cornwall face re-election in May.