York council leader denies making promise to freeze council tax before raising it

The leader of the City of York Council has denied she pledged to freeze council tax despite campaign leaflets suggesting she did.

Before being elected as council leader, Coun Claire Douglas was pictured and quoted on Labour campaign material saying: “York needs a Labour-run council to freeze your council tax.”

But on January 25, the Labour executive voted to increase council tax by 4.99 per cent - not including parish, police and fire authority precepts - to add more than £5m to its annual budget amid a forecasted £11m overspend.

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The Liberal Democrat party, the opposition on the council, is framing this as a broken promise by Coun Douglas.

Labour campaign material delivered in Rawcliffe and Clifton Without wardLabour campaign material delivered in Rawcliffe and Clifton Without ward
Labour campaign material delivered in Rawcliffe and Clifton Without ward

But the council leader says this referred to a pledge made by the national Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer to freeze council tax if he became Prime Minister.

The campaign material distributed before the May 2023 local elections that saw Labour elected in York with a majority quotes Coun Douglas saying: “York needs a Labour-run council to freeze your council tax, reverse the Liberal Democrats' blue badge ban, get free school meals to all primary school pupils and decarbonise our city.”

The last three things in the list of what Coun Douglas is quoted as saying are part of her six pledges.

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Freezing council tax was not one of her six pledges and the council leader says it features there because the national party asked her to include it.

But following the executive meeting on January 25, the Local Democracy Reporting Service asked Coun Douglas to explain what happened.

For full transparency, below is the conversation.

AL: “Why was freezing council tax printed on campaign material before the local elections?”

CD: “That was a national Labour Party commitment from Keir Starmer that was made in March 2023 to launch the local election campaign from our national party.

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“He committed that if Labour was in government they would freeze council tax for a year and so that’s where it came from.”

AL: “Was it misleading to have that amongst your council pledges (such as reversing the ‘blue badge ban’ and free school meals for all primary school children)?”

CD: “In my view, that’s not what the pledge was about.

“It was adhering to the national commitment to do that for residents so that’s why it was on there.”

AL: “If people have kept that leaflet and are looking at it now, they can see that council tax has gone up. Now that leaflet does look misleading, doesn’t it?”

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CD: “It was a national party commitment and we were asked to include it on our materials.”

York Labour’s actual key pledges before the May elections were as follows:

  • Ensure every primary school child gets a free school meal
  • Reverse the ‘blue badge ban’
  • Build genuinely affordable housing on council land
  • Recruit a new team of neighbourhood caretakers to look after our communities
  • Insulate thousands of York homes to cut bills and carbon
  • Bring well-paid jobs to York

Coun Paula Widdowson, deputy leader of York Liberal Democrats, said: “This is yet another example of a broken promise by this Labour administration.”

She also accused Labour of breaking promises on free school meals for all primary school children because they have only announced two one-year trials.

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However, Labour has previously said it aims to deliver the pledge in full by the next set of council elections, dependent on fundraising.

Coun Widdowson also said Labour promised neighbourhood caretakers but “they’re nowhere in the budget.”

She also said Labour promised to bring well-paid jobs to York but said the council is now “cutting the economic development team.”

Coun Widdowson added: “I urge Labour to think again because their actions will have a negative impact on the most vulnerable people in our city.”

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