FEW town halls in the region have agreed to freeze council tax next year - putting them at risk of financial 'punishment' by the government.

Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, today (Monday, January 28) stepped up his war with local authorities, by accusing those planning tax hikes of "cheating" hard-working taxpayers.

And he vowed to get tough with any "democracy dodgers", thinking of increasing council tax by slightly less than two per cent - the threshold for requiring a 'yes' vote in a local referendum.

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Mr Pickles said: "We will take into consideration anybody cheating their taxpayers. Anybody using loop holes will lose out next year."

Only 115 of 351 local authorities in England - fewer than one third - have agreed to take up the government's offer of 'help' to freeze bills in 2013-14, so far.

They include North Yorkshire County Council and three district authorities in North Yorkshire - Harrogate, Ryedale and Scarborough.

But, in the North-East, only Newcastle and North Tyneside have fallen into line, according to the department for communities and local government (DCLG).

Last year, four councils - Darlington, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton - defied Mr Pickles with rises of 3.5 per cent, when the referendum trigger was higher.

Darlington Council will meet on Thursday to discuss its plans. Last month, its Labour leader, Bill Dixon, hinted at a further rise, when he warned of a £18m 'black hole' in its budget, in the coming years.

Durham County can be expected to freeze its bills - having done so for the last two years - but is not due to make a decision until next month.

In addition, no police or fire authorities in the North-East or North Yorkshire have announced a freeze in their precepts for 2013-14, although some have elsewhere in the country.

The problem for town halls opting for a freeze is that they will receive a Whitehall grant equivalent to just a one per cent rise in council tax – far less than the 2.5 per cent on offer in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

With inflation above two per cent, that means a real-terms cut in funding - and possible further cuts to services. Durham will have to find £2m to fund a council tax freeze.

No council is likely to opt for a rise above two per cent, because of the likelihood of losing any referendum - at a cost of up to £250,000.

But, today, Mr Pickles said even those planning increases below the two per cent trigger should "ask permission first".

He added: "They have to man up. Be straight with people. Take them into their confidence. If the public believes you’ve got a sensible case, they might well listen."

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