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Pickles to tell West Mids police: ‘Hold a referendum if you want council tax to rise by 6p a week’

Pickles to tell West Mids police: ‘Hold a referendum if you want council tax to rise by 6p a week’

🕔04.Feb 2014

West Midlands Police Commissioner Bob Jones may be forced to abandon plans to increase council tax bills by an average six pence a week because the Government considers the rise to be too high.

Mr Jones is proposing a three per cent increase in the police precept – the amount of money raised through council tax to help fund the force’s £553 million budget.

But Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has indicated he will order local authorities and police commissioners considering a council tax increase of above 1.5 per cent to seek permission from residents through a referendum.

Mr Jones has said he is not prepared to hold a referendum and will reduce the council tax increase to 1.49 per cent if Mr Pickles intervenes – equivalent to about three pence a week on bills.

The commissioner’s spending plans for 2014-15 came under scrutiny and criticism from members of the West Midlands Police and Crime Panel, who expressed concern about the level of cash reserves carried by the force, which stands at £150 million.

Mr Jones intends to use £72 million from the reserves to support spending, including recruiting police officers for the first time in almost five years. He intends to take on 450 officers over the next two years as a partial replacement for the 1,300 officers from the force that have retired or left since the Government’s austerity public spending cuts began.

He admitted that the additional manpower would not lead to an overall increase in the number of police officers on the streets. The 450 figure will merely replace officers expected to retire over the next two years.

However, the commissioner intends to shift 100 police officers from desk jobs to front line service.

Mr Jones said it was “absurd” that Mr Pickles had still not made a final decision about the level of council tax increase at which a referendum should kick in.

He came under pressure from Conservative councillors to reduce a proposed three per cent council tax increase to 1.5 per cent. Cllr Deirdre Alden (Con Birmingham) pointed out that a cut of 1.5 per cent would cost just £900,000 which could be taken from reserves.

Cllr Ken Meeson (Con Solihull) described the £150 million reserves as “embarrassingly high and difficult to justify”.

Mr Jones said he would be spending more from reserves on front-line policing than any other police commissioner in the country. In doing so he would create a “breathing space” in advance of very difficult funding decisions that would have to be taken in future years.

The force would concentrate on developing “smarter new ways of working” which would reduce running costs and save money, he added.

The commissioner feared the West Midlands was at a “tipping point” where crime was beginning to rise because the force had to get rid of police jobs as a direct result of the way Government spending cuts.

The panel, which has powers to veto the commissioner’s spending plans, passed the budget without qualification with Labour councillors uniting to support Mr Jones.

Panel vice-chairman Cllr Jess Phillips (Lab Birmingham) said: “I don’t want to see fewer police officers on the streets, I want to see more. This won’t put more police on the streets, but it will stop a reduction.”

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