referendums

Jim Pickard

Eric Pickles, communities secretary, says today that his plan for council tax will be a “radical extension of direct democracy” which will “let the people decide“.

Under his proposals, the public will have the power to veto excessive council tax rises. (At present only ministers can ‘cap’ these increases).

Any council setting its increase above a set ceiling (approved in, er, Parliament) will trigger an automatic referendum of all registered electors in its area – at the cost of tens of thousands of pounds. The cost alone (at a time of tight budgets) will prevent most local authorities from even trying to carry out big increase.

They will also shy away from such exercises because they know that - in most cases - the public will almost certainly veto the rise, judging by past experience*.

That means the vital decision is the exact level of the ceiling, which will be set by MPs in London. In which case; does this translate into a transfer of power to local people? In effect, probably not.

The most truly democratic/localist way of doing this would be to let councils do what they want. If voters are angered by council tax rises they can vote out their councillors.

* In 2002 Blair allowed a clutch of councils to hold referendums on council tax rises, including Croydon, Bristol and Milton Keynes. Most voters unsurprisingly went for the lowest rise (or freeze).  Read more