Below-inflation council tax rises of 1.9 per cent could become the norm in Birmingham over the next 10 years, it was claimed yesterday.

City council leader Mike Whitby insisted three years of low increases since his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power was not a fluke, but part of a medium-term strategy designed to keep the cost of providing services as low as possible.

Council tax bills will rise by 1.9 per cent in April, for the third year in succession, equivalent to 38p a week for an average household.

Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) said estimates for the next decade suggested it would be possible to peg council tax rises to 1.9 per cent on an annual basis, but still leave more money to invest in front-line services.

The trend toward lower bills would underpin the city council's new-found reputation for financial prudence, he said.

The strategy depends on delivering a programme of efficiency savings worth more than £800 million.

If the council's business transformation programme hits targets, the city will enjoy a £122 million budget surplus by 2017, Coun Whitby promised.

Some of the surplus will be used to improve services such as housing and social care, while the remainder will be used to keep council tax bills down.

Coun Whitby added: "It is fiscal discipline underpinned by social conscience which is enabling us to divert the money to where it is most needed.

"There are three measures of inflation used by the Government and our council tax increase will be below any of them. We will never be complacent on our journey toward excellence and I say again that this is a budget that cities throughout the UK will envy.

"Thanks to all the hard work of our staff and partners we are now in a position of lowering costs and improving services. I am delighted that we are making progress towards delivering the excellent council that Birmingham people expect and deserve."

The 2008-09 budget identifies an additional £32 million to be spent on key services.

Proposals include: * £11 million for Adults and Communities for a range of investments including help for people with learning disabilities and vulnerable older people * £5 million for Children, Young People and Families as part of a programme of targeted and preventative services for looked after children & £7 million for a range of services including waste recycling and highway maintenance

Coun Whitby also promised to spend £248 million over three years to enable 70,000 council houses to meet the Government's decent homes standard.

He added: "The extra investment in services has been achieved despite Government funding not having kept pace with inflation.

"Against the backdrop of Birmingham's improved Comprehensive Performance Assessment score, now three stars and improving well, this means that this budget is a significant achievement for the city and shows that low council tax and value for money can be balanced with service improvements."

The impact of efficiency savings was questioned by opposition Labour councillors at yesterday's cabinet meeting.

Group leader Sir Albert Bore said there was little detail in cabinet reports about how costs would be reduced and the impact that cutbacks might have on services.

Referring to an efficiency programme spread sheet, Sir Albert said: "I see things like £7.6 million to be found from adults and communities and £10 million from older adults services. But what on earth does this mean? What effect will it have?"

Alistair Dow, head of the council scrutiny section, warned the next three years might prove difficult as departments struggled to deliver savings.