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Council tax hike, Brexit lorry park rent charges and a plea to halt building in Kent - a review of the week in politics

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From an inflation-busting council tax hike for Kent residents to the millions of pounds being paid in rent for Brexit lorry parks and another re-organisation of the NHS.

Here’s a round-up of what's been happening this week by the KM Group's political editor Paul Francis.

A 5% hike in council tax for KCC was agreed this week
A 5% hike in council tax for KCC was agreed this week

Short changed

It’s not been an easy time for councils trying to balance the books in the shadow of Covid-19, which has seen budgets being drawn up against the backdrop of an unexpectedly large hole in their income.

Kent County Council set its spending plans for the year this week after its usual marathon meeting, in which there was the standard ritual of opposition parties putting forward a series of motions and amendments that were voted down - with one exception - by the ruling Conservatives.

However, there was something different this year that meant an added piquancy to the meeting: notably a revolt, albeit a minor one, within the ranks of Conservative backbenchers.

Yes, that normally well-drilled party machine couldn’t halt two malcontents breaking cover to say they could not support a 5% tax hike in bills.

'The pair of rebels duly kept to their pledge and abstained when the final vote was taken. Not quite a full-scale revolt...'

They were rewarded for their stand by being suspended from the Conservative group, amid claims they were just two among a 20-strong group who had reservations about the increase in council tax and were exerting pressure for a rethink to ease the pain being inflicted on hard-pressed council taxpayers.

Conservative leader Roger Gough announced a rebate of £50 to anyone already in receipt of a discount and said there would be an injection of cash to district councils to help with their hardship funds.

This seemed to be enough to convince other potential Conservative rebels to swing behind the party, which will also have had one eye on the forthcoming election in May.

The pair of rebels, Cllr Paul Cooper and Cllr Gary Cooke from Maidstone, duly kept to their pledge and abstained when the final vote was taken. Not quite a full-scale revolt.

There was one proposal in the budget debate which did achieve a political consensus and that was to write a letter to the local government minister pleading for a review of the council tax system.

KCC leader Cllr Roger Gough (Con)
KCC leader Cllr Roger Gough (Con)

No, it wasn’t exactly the storming of the Bastille but there is a strong case for such a review, not least because household bills are based on property values which date back to 1991.

The problem is that governments of all stripes know that a revaluation exercise would undoubtedly be interpreted by voters as a way of hiking up bills, so successive governments have punted the idea of a review into the longest grass they can find.

Constitutional wrangling

There was plenty of discussion among county councillors about whether they had been given sufficient information in the budget about some of the late changes.

The issue - at least so far as Labour was concerned - was around whether it was constitutionally permitted for the council's ruling administration to bring forward new plans that hadn’t been part of the original budget consultation.

This necessitated the equivalent of a VAR ruling by the council's senior legal officer and an assurance from the chief finance officer that there had been no transgression of the rules.

Blue on blue

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale have what you might call ‘form’ with the pair regularly squaring up in the Commons.

The latest bout in their political pugilism came at PMQs this week when Sir Roger tackled the Prime Minister on housing development on prime farmland.

Would the Prime Minister like to call a moratorium on development on agricultural land while planning policy was under review, asked the Kent MP?

North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale. Picture: Parliament
North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale. Picture: Parliament

The Prime Minister swatted away the question and suggested that the MP get together with the planning minister Robert Jenrick for a chat.

Sir Roger’s verdict? “Utterly unhelpful...he deliberately misconstrued my question.” Seconds out, round two…

Rent Due

The government appears not to have struck terribly good deals with the owners of land on which temporary lorry holding areas have been opened for customs checks.

In Ashford, HMRC is paying the owners of the site at Waterbrook several million pounds to operate it as a temporary Inland Border Facility until another site at nearby Sevington is ready.

A lorry heads into the Waterbrook Inland Border Facility. Picture: Barry Goodwin
A lorry heads into the Waterbrook Inland Border Facility. Picture: Barry Goodwin

By the end of February the overall bill will be in the region of £8million.

Nothing to see, move along

Emergency planners gave themselves a pat on the back this week as traffic continued to run freely on the main routes to the Channel ports.

Just to make sure that they could not be accused of being complacent, a press release issued about the smooth handling of things carried a quote from Kent Police Assistant Chief Constable Claire Nix, chairman of the Kent Resilience Forum, saying, er, they were not complacent.

One interesting figure was that 27 other forces had helped out since the start of the New Year.

What The Doctor Ordered?

Yes, another re-organisation of the NHS is underway but is it the most propitious time?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock seems to think it is but some have doubts.

The minister said the aim of the reforms was so health and care services could work more closely together - which historically virtually every other shake-up in the NHS has promised.

What all this might mean for the controversial reorganisation of healthcare services in east Kent - in limbo because of Covid - is anyone’s guess.

Nigel Farage, pictured in a Kent pub, is not a fan of the idea that pubs could reopen but not be able to sell alcohol
Nigel Farage, pictured in a Kent pub, is not a fan of the idea that pubs could reopen but not be able to sell alcohol

Last Orders

Could the government be forcing pubs to sell only soft drinks for a while under the “route map” being drawn up by Boris Johnson?

The idea got short shrift from former Ukip party leader Nigel Farage, who was clearly fizzing with indignation, tweeting. “Pubs with no alcohol? What is the point? Government control has gone way too far.”

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