Council tax bills are to be frozen for the next financial year, it was announced today.

Councillor Stephen Knight, Richmond Council deputy leader, confirmed bills will not rise in April and said it was a move to help residents through the financial crisis.

Coun Knight, who is also cabinet member for resources, said: “These are difficult times and we have considered this year’s settlement very carefully.

“This included heeding what we were told in a budget consultation we carried out before Christmas [which revealed] there was little appetite for higher council tax in the current economic climate."

The full budget was revealed this morning and will be discussed by the authority’s co-ordination, finance and performance commission next Wednesday before going before cabinet on February 22.

It has to approved by a meeting of full council, the next one is on March 2.

The budget includes an extra £1m for the care of older people and those with learning difficulties; a £500,000 addition to the budget for children’s services; £700,000 more for the escalating cost of waste disposal and an additional £1.2m for concessionary fares for the elderly.

It also includes a plan to save £4m over the course of the year and details of a three-year cost-cutting scheme, which could save as much as £15m.

Coun Knight added: “Councils across the country are going to face massive challenges after the next general election.

“The Government has made it clear that it wants to cut the public sector deficit, which is likely to mean real cuts in the money given to local authorities in coming years.

“Our challenge will be to protect priority services while keeping council tax down.

“None of this is easy.

“The savings will mainly come from finding more efficient ways to do things and therefore employing fewer staff.

“We are also due to make a one off saving of £600,000 from smarter use of our office space allowing us to get rid of some building leases by the end of the year.”

Coun Knight said there would not be excessive spending from the authority’s reserves - which currently stand at around £45m - but money would be spent now to save in the future.

Councillor Geoffrey Samuel, deputy leader of Richmond Conservatives, said there was money available to have offered a reduction in council tax and said residents were expecting it due to the Liberal Democrat campaigns for the 2006 election.

He said the authority was around £4.25m better off than this time last year, due to a reduction in VAT, the mortgage on the civic centre being paid off and spending less than budgeted this year.

He added: "There was room for a reduction.

"And it makes us even more cynical about the increase last year.

“We said last year it was time to go for 0 per cent or a reduction, they said a 4.33 per cent increase was necessary to keep service levels up.

“It now appears it was necessary to build up a war chest to do this. I think it’s very cynical.”

Coun Knight denied the freeze had anything to do with the forthcoming council elections, scheduled for May 6, and said helping residents ease their financial burdens was the only reason for the move.

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