Row Intensifies Over Merton's Adult Social Care Funding

Figures revealed as council runs consultation on increasing council tax

Merton is one of only eight councils in England which failed to raise council tax this year to fund adult social care, figures have revealed.

Almost 95% of the country's councils made use of powers to increase council tax by up to 2% to fund adult social care in 2016-17. But Merton Council controversially chose to freeze council tax as it has done since 2010.

Research from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting shows 144 out of 152 councils deployed the allowable precept, to raise £382m across England.

But Labour-run Merton is now running a consultation on using the precept allowed by the Government to raise £1.7m to spend on adult social care in 2017-19. The consultation ends on November 4.

However Liberal Democrat Councillor Mary-Jane Jeanes has questioned the aims of the consultation. She said: "Whilst this consultation may meet minimum legal requirements, as a general principle I believe that as a Council we should be aiming higher. Put simply, on the face of it this doesn’t look like a genuinely open consultation process that will engage residents across the borough.

"It is certainly not clear how the Council is seeking to ensure the maximum possible engagement by local residents or, in the case of a low response rate, how responses might be weighted to get a representative view. In fact it is not made clear to residents at the outset how their feedback will be used at all.

"I also do not believe it is possible to answer the questions about acceptable increases in council tax in the abstract without a better grounding in what that money is used for.”

And in a letter about the consultation to local residents in St Helier ward, Council Leader Stephen Alambritis said: "One consequence of putting up the council tax is that when people can’t afford to pay, they can get pushed into debt and have to face the courts.

"We are therefore strongly minded not to increase your council tax for the next two years, especially whilst Brexit is being negotiated.”

Former Labour Councillor Peter Walker, who resigned from the council over the decision not to use the precept for adult social care said in response to the letter: “This extraordinary intervention in a consultation exercise paid for by the Council brings into question the whole validity of the exercise. It appears that Councillor Alambritis is making it clear that he and Merton Council will ignore any result which does not agree with their views.”

And Merton Park Ward Independent Residents revealed in their latest newsletter that 92% of its residents responding to a survey said they would be willing to pay 2% more in council tax (£22 a year for a Band D home) provided the money was spent on adult care.

They added: "Merton is facing a forecast overspend of £7.4m on its budget of £48m for 2016/17 following an overspend of £1.4m in 2015/16. The precept will not go far towards meeting the shortfall. But central government is now assuming local authorities will increase council tax by 3.99% each year. Unlike Merton, the vast majority of local authorities increased council tax for this year."

Conservative Spokesman for Finance and Business, Councillor David Williams, said: “Labour-controlled Merton’s council tax consultation has descended into farce. As the closing date (4 November) approaches, the Wimbledon Labour Party has circulated a leaflet directly contradicting one put out by Councillor Alambritis and Labour councillors in Mitcham and Morden wards.

“This confusion and their blatant politicisation of the process further undermines the value of a taxpayer-funded consultation which has little to do with fact. It has been cobbled together simply to try to mask deep divisions within the controlling Labour group who have let the council’s finances fall into disrepair and damaged frontline services, especially those supporting the young, old and vulnerable.”

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October 26, 2016