Published: 15:05, 09 February 2021
| Updated: 17:20, 09 February 2021
Two Conservative county councillors have been suspended from the Tory group at Kent County Council, after saying they were not prepared to support a 5% increase in the council tax.
Kent County Council will set a budget this week which proposes an above-inflation hike in the tax, with bills for homes in Band C rising by £60 from £1,200 to £1,260.
The two councillors are Paul Cooper and Gary Cooke, who both represent divisions in Maidstone and have now had the whip removed, meaning they will have to sit as independents.
Cllr Cooper declined to comment on his suspension, which comes just days before the annual budget-setting meeting.
Cllr Cooke indicated last month he was uneasy with the increase, telling a committee: "In the difficult times that all our residents are facing, we are asking them to fund a 5% tax increase in Kent. Part of which will go towards bolstering our cash reserves.”
KCC says the budget reflects the unprecedented pressures the authority is under, with the corona virus adversely affecting its income from council tax and business rates.
There is understood to be wider unease among the Conservative group at County Hall, with several other members uncomfortable at the administration’s spending plans for the year.
Reservations were expressed by other members at a private group meeting this week to discuss the budget with sources saying around 20 councillors had misgivings.
Tonbridge and Malling county Cllr Harry Rayner (Con) says he is "unhappy" about the 4.99% tax hikes ahead of a crunch vote on the £1.1billion budget in two days' time.
He said: "There are a lot of people suffering hardship at the moment and I will have great difficulty in supporting the proposed increases."
However, it is not clear whether other Conservatives will either abstain or vote against their party’s spending plans.
The budget comes at an arguably difficult time for the party, ahead of county council elections in May which will be the first test of the standing of the main parties.
The Conservative administration can expect to get its budget through on Thursday, as it holds a significant majority with more than 60 of the 81 seats.
Senior Tory backbenchers have given their public support to the tax hikes.
Dover County Cllr Geoff Lymer (Con), chair of KCC's public health committee, said: "There is no silver bullet, but I believe this budget will go a long way to maintaining our services to support communities during these difficult times."
Ashford county Cllr Paul Bartlett (Con), who is KCC's health scrutiny chairman, said: "KCC has faced profound budget pressures this year from the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope residents understand the need to raise council tax this year."
Meanwhile, other tensions within the Conservative group surfaced after some long-standing councillors failed to be re-adopted as candidates for the May poll.
Among them was Eric Hotson, of Staplehurst, who was not selected for his Maidstone division after 11 years and Matthew Balfour, a former cabinet member.