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Voters happy to pay extra taxes

Milton Keynes and Oxfordshire residents have volunteered to spend more on education. Clare Dean reports.

MIDDLE England is putting its money where its mouth is and digging deep to support the education service.

In Oxfordshire last year residents donated pound;47,000 - the bulk of which went into schools - after the council gave them an unusual choice. If they opted to pay a higher rate of council tax, they could choose which service would benefit from the extra cash. This was in response to a Government spending cap - the third in three years.

Householders sent pound;18,000 directly to schools, a further pound;4,500 went into the education budget. Another pound;7,000 went into supporting libraries and museums while social services received pound;2,500. The remaining pound;15,000 went into the general county coffers.

Oxfordshire residents have now been joined by the citizens of Milton Keynes. In the first "people's poll" they voted overwhelming for a 9.8 per cent rise in council-tax bills rather than leave their schools, libraries and home-helps facing huge cuts. And this week the authority set a budget, backing the move.

This grassroots push for education spending presents a dilemma for the Government which believes that council taxes should rise by an average of only 4.5 per cent.

John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, has already warned he will curb council budgets if they are "excessive and unreasonable".

Yet nearly 70 per cent of the Milton Keynes residents who voted backed rises of 9.8 per cent or more.

More people took part in the referendum, conducted by the Electoral Reform Society, than in the city's local elections with nearly 45 per cent voting by either freepost or free telephone call. Residents were given the option of council tax rises of either 5, 9.8 or 15 per cent.

Now the Government has to decide whether to accept the wishes of the citizens of the country's fastest growing city or stick to its financial guns. Its own plans for modernising local government say that councils should listen and respond to their communities and enable them to hold referendums on local issues.

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