Wed, 21 Mar 2018
POLITICAL opponents have welcomed increased funding from business rate retention, but concerns have been raised over how Berkshire’s funding is being split.
West Berkshire Council is one of six unitary authorities included in a business rate retention pilot scheme.
The scheme will see the six Berkshire councils collect an extra £35m between them and be able to retain the additional money within the county, rather than having to return it to Whitehall.
The Berkshire authorities have committed to set aside 70 per cent of the additional funding towards transport improvements in the Reading, Wokingham, Slough and Heathrow corridors.
The remaining 30 per cent will be distributed to the individual local authorities in Berkshire, in proportion to their contribution to the overall growth.
West Berkshire Council is expected to retain £22m (26 per cent) of the £86m it is due to collect in 2018/19.
This is £3m more than the £19m (22 per cent) it got to keep of the £85m it collected in 2017/18.
The leader of the council’s Liberal Democrat opposition group, Lee Dillon (Thatcham North), said he welcomed the additional cash, but was concerned with the decision-making.
Mr Dillon said: “What I’m concerned about is that the submissions to the Government for the pilot scheme say £36m in total, of which 70 per cent is going to be spent on infrastructure works distributed by the LEP [Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership], but already earmarked for Reading Slough and Heathrow corridor, and none of that is in West Berkshire.
"The remaining 30 per cent is to be distributed to remaining authorities for anything they wish – that has not been agreed by anyone at West Berkshire Council.
“It has gone to the Berkshire leaders’ group.
“If we were taking part in a pilot scheme being touted to address the funding crisis in reduction of the revenue support grant, maybe we should have been able to integrate into others what that’s spent on and that has not happened; and that’s really poor that such a major funding decision is being made without councillors having a chance to input.”
Newbury MP Richard Benyon, who has championed higher business rate retention as a way to counter cuts to local government funding, welcomed the news.
“It’s certainly made a difference to the budget,” he said.
“It’s been enormously welcomed and it’s our job as a pilot authority to prove that we can deliver.”
When asked about the allocation between the six Berkshire authorities, Mr Benyon said: “I wasn’t involved in that.
“As things stand, it’s on Thames Valley Berkshire and we want to make sure that projects are being funded to benefit everybody.
“You don’t have to live in West Berkshire to benefit from the road network.”
And on the third consecutive council tax rise for West Berkshire residents, the Conservative MP said: “We were very good at keeping the council tax rise down.
“We froze it for many years.
“Across the last eight years, overall tax rises have been kept very low. I don’t want to see them rise at all in future years.”
The council cuts and tax hikes, and business rates pilot, follows a reduction in government funding to local authorities through the revenue support grant.
Mr Dillon said: “Any additional money from the Government is welcome, given that they have destroyed local government funding.
“George Osborne said councils would be able to keep 100 per cent.
“I think that’s wrong for the country as a whole.
“There needs to be a redistribution of rates across the country.
“We are one country, we use infrastructure across the whole country.
“I’m not in favour of councils keeping 100 per cent of rates.
“The revenue support grant model worked, the formula could be improved – West Berkshire had a bad deal on certain areas.
“I think it’s a fair way of distributing money rather than 100 per cent of rates.
“I don’t think it’s good for the country as a whole.”