PROMISING to "freeze council tax" was always one of the Government's daftest pledges - and now it is unravelling. I say daft because the decision whether to raise the local tax lies, of course, with locally-elected councillors and not - or, at least, not yet - with Whitehall. The policy just about held together while cash was being thrown at councils to refund the cost, as it was when the "freeze" was first announced three years ago. Rebellion was crushed by forcing any council opting for a rise above two per cent to stage and win an expensive referendum. But the Treasury soon got stingier, adopting an approach that reminds me of a favourite Pogues lyric: "Lend me [pounds]10 and I'll buy you a drink." Because now town halls are offered only one per cent of the cost of a freeze, when inflation has been far higher - which means they must make further cuts to accept it. In this financial year, four of every ten councils defied the Government by turning down the puny cash offer - that's a total of 164 councils across England . Now that revolt is growing, and it includes scores of Conservative councils which are planning to hike bills, including North Yorkshire . A [pounds]21 increase is on the cards for Band D taxpayers - after a three-year freeze - as the authority wrestles with slashing [pounds]171m from its budget over eight years. JohnWeighell, its Tory leader, warned: "We have reached the point where accepting that offer presents us with a financial challenge which we believe may be unacceptable." In response, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles is looking at how to ease that pressure on councils. . . no, I'm joking - of course he isn't! The big bruiser wants to turn the screw further on councils he brands "democracy dodgers", by lowering the threshold for compulsory referendums to rises of 1.5 per cent. Leaked documents showministers arguing this would "protect hard- pressed families", when the eternal war on council spending is doing exactly the opposite. It is poorer people who depend most on social care and other town hall services which are rapidly disappearing to save better-off residents as little as 40p a week. As I've argued before, the only long-term solution is to axe council tax and give town halls a proper cash base to run vital local services, taxing property, or land, values. Ministers could have been brave, by ending the scandal of council tax stopping at Band H, which allows wealthier homeowners to escape paying their fair share. Oh no. Instead they spent years undermining council finances and - embarrassed by a growing opposition - are now assaulting any authorities that fight back. This from a Government that claims to believe in "localism", in devolving power in this most centralised state. What a joke. And, yet - having spent nearly four years watching Mr Pickles in action - why does none of this surprise me? IF Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate has rolled up at Parliament recently, he will have found his chip-and-pin entry code has been blocked and entry denied. Fellow peers voted through a recommendation that Durham's former police chief should serve a six-month suspension for his role in a cash-for-access scandal. Well, they call it a suspension - an unrepentant Brian memorably called it a "bit of gardening leave".
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