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'Perfect storm' leads to council tax increase

Council tax to rise in order to balance books in face of Government cuts

COUNCIL tax will rise by almost five per cent from April, following West Berkshire Council’s approval of its budget for 2017/18.

Parking charges will also increase  in council-run car parks in Newbury, Thatcham, Pangbourne and Theale.

The council needs to save £8m in the next financial year after having its Government funding slashed from £33m in 2011 to £3.7m in 2017/18.

The majority of the £8m will be found through the council tax rise, parking charge increase and internal redundancies within the council.

However, funding to some vital public services will be either reduced or axed entirely.

Funding to West Berkshire Citizens Advice will be slashed by £30,000 – half the £60,000 that was originally proposed.

Among the most controversial of the cuts this year is the £200,000 reduction to the drainage maintenance budget.

There was a sombre mood among both the ruling Conservatives and the opposing Liberal Democrats as the latest round of savings were given the green light last week.

It was reflected by Lib Dem leader Lee Dillon, who declared that the budget “painted a fairly bleak picture of the financial pressures we are under”.

During the debate, he added: “These cuts are seeing us go backwards, not forwards.

“I know we have hard choices to make with regards to fulfilling our legal responsibility of balancing the budget and we will disagree on which services to cut.

“But I think we can agree the Government should be doing more to support councils, and by definition our residents, so we don’t have to go backwards.  

“I would hope that our MP [Richard Benyon] has looked at the list of 73 (savings proposals) and that he has seen the hurt that these will deliver to his constituents and a reduction in our ability as a council to be resilient to unforeseen circumstances that may arise.

“I hope that if he is taking note, he will represent our arguments to the Government, to tell them how bad things have become.”

The council’s acting leader Graham Jones said local government was facing a “perfect storm”, with Government grants being cut while demand for services continued to rise.

At last Thursday’s meeting, Mr Jones said: “It gives me no great pleasure to propose the [council tax] increase I do tonight, but I do it in the knowledge it is the right thing to do.”

Councillor Rick Jones summed up the mood among the Tories when he said: “I deeply regret the need for council tax increase.”

Fellow Conservative Alan Law echoed those feelings saying: “As a Conservative, I am very reluctant to endorse a 4.99 per cent council tax increase.

“I very much hope that this year is a one-off, but I fear not.”

Jeanette Clifford added: “We wish we did not have to make these savings – it is not the route to popularity – but after a great deal of thought, we have decided to proceed with it.”

The Liberal Democrat group, unsurprisingly, voted against the budget and put forward three amendments.

Mr Dillon said a 20p-per-hour parking charge increase would dissuade shoppers, hurt local businesses and harm the rural economy.

His group instead proposed a smaller rise of 10p per hour. However, that suggestion was quickly shot down by the ruling group.

Mrs Clifford said Mr Dillon’s proposed amendment was an ‘opportunistic proposal’ that would see money spent in an unproductive way – because the council would have to go out to consultation again.

Mr Jones said that, had the council been able to keep all the £85m business rates it collects, it would be able to slash council tax instead of having to raise it.

At the meeting, Mr Dillon added that the only reason for cheer was the use of transitional funding, which he said would “help mitigate the pain” for organisations affected.

The council agreed that the grant of £1.37m be allocated as follows: £140,000 to short breaks for disabled children, £30,000 to Citizens Advice, £200,000 to libraries and £1m to be put into a Transformation Fund to assist the council with “transforming and improving the way it delivers its services”.

Mrs Clifford said: “We are Conservatives. We are responsible with other people’s money, but we have the responsibility of building a whole budget – a whole package, not standalone amendments.

“West Berkshire residents know we have to balance the budget to live within our means.”

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