The “national crisis” crippling adult social care has “forced” Merton Council to row back on an election pledge and raise tax by three per cent. 

The leader of Merton Council, Councillor Stephen Alambritis, has denied the planned increase is a U-turn, despite his previously strong opposition to the idea and his election pledge to keep council tax frozen until 2018.

Last year, local authorities were given the power to raise tax by up to 1.99 per cent, with the option of a further two per cent specifically to fund adult social care.

The Merton Labour Group had previously refused to break its election pledge, and in March voted to keep council tax levels frozen while implementing £5 million of cuts to the adult social care sector, causing a split among party ranks and the resignation of Labour councillor Peter Walker.

Peter Walker handed in his resignation after voting against his party over cuts to adult social care

March 3: Peter Walker resigns from Merton Council as cuts to adult social care are passed in the budget​

This decision also led to opposition outside of the council, with the chairman of Merton’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Dr Andrew Murray, warning the council in October that extra funding supplied to the Better Care Fund (BCF) would be withdrawn unless it raised the precept.

In an email dated October 11, Dr Murray warned that Merton CCG would only be prepared to contribute the mandatory funding level of £3,428,000 next year, and would take away the additional £2 million it had provided Merton Council with this year.

December 13: NHS holding Merton Council 'to ransom' in dispute about raising council tax to fund adult social care​

On December 15, the Government’s Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced local authorities could raise council tax by a further six per cent over the next two years to fund adult social care.

Speaking today, Cllr Alambritis said: “Given the national crisis in adult social care, plus the threat from the Merton CCG, we were left with no option but to take the precept.

“I always want to keep my promises and my pledges. I’m keeping the Merton element of council tax frozen, but given the blackmail from the CCG about the BCF and the crisis in the adult social care sector – which should be addressed by national government and not council tax payers – we have no option but to go with the precept.

December 15: Leader of Merton Council Councillor Stephen Alambritis refuses to stand down during formal investigation as he condemns Government plans fund social care with council tax rise​

“These will be tough times for everyone, but I think it’s the best way forward. The total inability of the Tory government to fund this sector means we have no option.”

He added: “There’s no U-turn in this. We froze council tax between 2010-2014, and we were due to do the same from 2014-2018. We did freeze it for the first two years of this, in the teeth of opposition from the Tories.

Protesters against the cuts in January last year

“It’s not a U-turn. It’s a realistic approach, which is still mindful to keeping a low council tax base. The threat of the withdrawal of £2 million and the inability of the Conservative government has meant we have no option.”

Cllr Alambritis said he could not comment on whether council tax would be raised by a further three per cent in 2018, saying: “We will take each year as it comes”.

A spokeswoman for Merton CCG said: “The CCG welcomes the council’s decision to take the opportunity offered by the council tax precept to provide ring-fenced funding for social care for some of the most vulnerable in our society, in the context of a health and social care system under significant pressure.”

Cllr Alambritis is currently under formal investigation by Merton Council for his conduct during an official consultation with residents into whether council tax should be raised, when he sent out a Labour letter warning residents against the increase. The letter came with a questionnaire, labelled as a consultation, and contained a freepost envelope to return it back to Merton Council, rather than the Labour Group.

November 22: Merton residents vote to raise council tax to protect adult social care services

December 14: Leader of Merton Council Councillor Stephen Alambritis will be formally investigated over council tax consultation as critics accused of 'witch hunt'

Despite this, the official consultation showed 77 per cent of residents would support a raise in council tax to fund adult social care.

Conservative finance spokesman, Councillor David Williams, said: "It's remarkable that Merton Labour are blaming the local NHS for their own mismanagement of the council finances. In truth this is a crisis all of their own making. 

"Labour are in a complete mess. Merton Council is overpending by millions of pounds each year because the shambolic administration has consistently under budgeted on care services for older and disabled residents. 

"In March 2016, Conservative councillors proposed a precept to protect services for the most vulnerable residents. Yet Labour refused to support this even though it wouldn't have cost tax payers a penny more. 

"A year later we - and most other London councils - have been proven right. Because Merton Labour ignored all calls for a precept, they now face digging themselves out of an ever deepening budget hole."

Mr Walker also criticised his former colleague’s actions, saying: “What is really incumbent on Stephen [Alambritis] is to apologise to the electors of Merton for making a completely irresponsible promise to freeze council tax for four years.

“He only has himself to blame. I told him at the time that it wasn’t a very business-like decision.

“Four years ago he was promising to freeze council tax. A year ago he was banging on his chest and saying he would keep his election promise, and barely a year later he’s broken it. Of course it’s a U-turn.”

Mr Walker added: “I’m very pleased they have seen common sense and are pledging to support those in need.

“It’s regrettable they didn’t say the same this time last year. We have had a year of suffering.”

The final budget proposals and level of council tax for 2017/18 will be put forward by cabinet on February 13, and voted on at full council on March 1.

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