Extensive contacts over Surrey County Council tax hike plan revealed
The extensive contact between Surrey County Council, Tory MPs and the Government over its plans for a politically embarrassing 15% tax hike has been laid bare.
Correspondence released by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), amounting to more than 80 pages, shows that discussion continued until the last-minute decision by Surrey's Tory leadership to abandon the huge hike with an indication that ministers were offering "some extra funding" from 2018.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly challenged Theresa May over whether the county was offered a "sweetheart deal" to abandon the 15% rise.
Surrey dropped the plan - which would have required a referendum in the county - on February 7, opting instead for a 4.99% rise which did not require a public vote.
The cache of documents released by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid's department - and similar records released by the council - show that on the morning of the decision to abandon the 15% plan, a senior Surrey officer sent a text message to a high-ranking official at the DCLG.
In the text, timed at 8.23am on February 7, Surrey's director of finance Sheila Little told DCLG's director of local government finance Matthew Style that council leader David Hodge had shown her a "note from a Surrey MP about a conversation late last night wit (sic) SJ" - apparently a reference to Mr Javid - which "seems to indicate Government are willing to get us some extra funding from 2018".
The text continued: "V interested in whether this is sincere. As it stands isn't enough to call the ref off? But could it be? Grateful if we can have an officer chat, although I've told the leader he would need to speak to SJ."
The extensive correspondence also shows that at one point in the negotiations, Mr Hodge was only able to communicate by receiving incoming calls because he had forgotten his mobile password.
In an email on February 5, he said: "I regret that my mobile password has done a runner on me which is only allowing me to receive calls but no access to texts or phone calls out."
Ms Little also indicated that she needed clear figures to present to Mr Hodge about any deal on offer - because he would not understand percentages.
A text on February 3 to Mr Style read: "It would be hugely helpful if a number can be quoted to David - he won't understand the %'s!"
Mrs May has insisted there was no "conspiracy" with Surrey - the council which covers the seats of senior Tories including Chancellor Philip Hammond and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
But the council is set to be one of the authorities taking part in the pilot scheme allowing it to retain 100% of the business rates it generates in 2018/19.
Labour stepped up the pressure on the Government, claiming ministers and their advisers gave an "extraordinary level of access" to the Tory-controlled authority.
Tory Jonathan Lord, the MP for Woking, suggested that Mr Javid could resort to cutting funding for other local authorities to provide £31 million needed by Surrey County Council, according to correspondence with the authority's leader Mr Hodge.
Shadow minister Barbara Keeley quoted the email, released under Freedom of Information laws, as she highlighted the "substantial stream of letters, emails and texts".
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: "The information released confirms what we've always said, that while Surrey County Council wished to become a pilot area for 100% business rates retention this was not possible for next year.
"All councils, including Surrey, will have the opportunity to become a pilot area from 2018, and details of how to apply to do so will be published shortly."