TAXPAYERS still have no clue how much they will pay this year as councillors abandoned pledges to put civic responsibility ahead of party advantage and failed to agree a budget.

Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems spent 10 hours arguing over the past two nights but still could not reach a compromise - now council tax bills cannot be printed this weekend. Further delays could cost the council £60,000.

Reading Borough Council's director of resources, Dave Peasley, was forced to step in and give councillors a slap on the wrist, saying the clock is ticking for them to fulfil their most important duty.

He said he could soon need to use statutory powers to force the process along, adding: "During this period the council is prohibited from entering into new arrangements involving the incurring of expenditure. Subject to me taking legal advice this could mean if a refuse vehicle needed to refuel and this mean incurring new expenditure then this would be prohibited. Likewise a package for a vulnerable child or adult could not be agreed if it involved new or planned new expenditure.

"Clearly this would be extremely damaging to the services the council provides and to those people who depend upon them."

Only Labour and the Lib Dems have so far put forward their proposed budgets, with differences in spending priorities but virtually the same bill for the average taxpayer - the Lib Dem budget just £3 per year cheaper than Labour's.

Labour altered their original budget proposal, which would have seen a 4.24% council tax hike, to include many of the Lib Dems' wishes and a smaller 3.99% increase. But the Lib Dems accused Labour of arrogance for not telling them about it before the meeting. The two groups could still not agree on cuts to some departments, with the Lib Dems saying it was necessary to replenish dwindling balances but Labour saying they could hit frontline services.

Labour leader Cllr Jo Lovelock said afterwards: "We're not going to be bounced into a sum at 11pm at night because they don't trust us to do the work we have promised to do. I think they like the posturing."

But Lib Dem leader Cllr Gareth Epps said: "Having had all day to pick up the phone to me, we received a �€�take it or leave it' proposal barely an hour before the meeting, without debate."

The Tories have so far stayed out of the real negotiations, determined to stick by their pledge to freeze council tax at 2008/9 levels. They have not said exactly how they would save the £2.7m required to do this, but have suggested a thorough review of all council spending to get better value for money.

Conservative Cllr Mark Ralph said the council should be renegotiating contracts, switching suppliers and reviewing pay structures to save money.

Tory leader Andrew Cumpsty last night blamed the other two parties for the mess.

He said: "It's extraordinary that given the closeness of the Labour and Liberal parties they could not come to an agreement for the good of Reading."

The parties will have another go at setting a budget on Monday (2) at 6.30pm.