Thu, 05 Mar 2020
IN a heated debate ruled by partisan voting, the Conservative-led West Berkshire Council’s revenue budget was approved – leading to a near four per cent rise in council tax bills for the district’s residents.
Council tax will go up by 1.99 per cent, with band D properties paying an extra £1.15 per week – almost £60 a year – while an additional two per cent precept has been ring-fenced for adult social care.
These two increases will bring an extra £4.2m of revenue for the council, taking the total amount raised by council tax to £102m.
The budget was presented by council leader Lynne Doherty, who argued that residents would understand the necessity of the council tax rise, having seen funding from central government slashed in recent years.
She said: “As a Conservative, I do not welcome a rise in council tax and I believe low taxes are the key to a strong economy.
“But the benefits of doing so are that we’re able to invest in the areas we know are important to residents, such as caring for the vulnerable, ensuring our children are supported to reach their full potential and local employment opportunities.
“While it wasn’t an easy decision, it does give us flexibility and I’m confident this increase will be acceptable to the majority.”
Although there are no direct cuts to services, there will be £3.24m-worth of savings made through “a mixture of efficiencies, transformation and income generation”.
These will include putting up the cost of the bus-to-school transport service and the weekly price of staying in one of the four council-run care homes, along with council staff redundancies.
The opposition Liberal Democrat and Green parties both proposed their own set of amendments to the budget, however there was controversy and frustration from opposition councillors over procedure – as they were required to vote for or against the amendments en bloc, as opposed to individually.
Among the Lib Dem amendments were requests for £100,000 to be spent on establishing the viability of a hybrid solar farm, £50,000 on removing the green bin charge for those in receipt of council tax benefits, £50,000 on a free car parking fund for town and parish councils to boost footfall, and to scrap the increase in home-to-school transport.
Presenting the amendments, Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) criticised the Conservatives for their “unambitious” budget.
He said: “As in past years, I find myself dispirited when I read through the Conservative administration budget.
“This budget is a desert of innovation and our amendments provide some investment, protect services, and tackle our biggest issues.
“They contain the usual round of efficiencies, which let us all understand is a word they use that means ‘cuts’.
“Our amendments are ambitious and show a real sense of urgency and that is what I find totally lacking in these budget proposals.
“It’s not good enough just to be in office. Your job is to deliver better services and a better environment for our residents.
“You just about managed to hang on to power, but based on your first budget we see more of the same approach – a managed decline of our services.”
Voting on party lines, the amendments were rejected by the council, with executive member for finance Ross Mackinnon questioning where the funding would come from.
The Green Party meanwhile proposed transferring £1.25m from the council’s general reserves to a new climate emergency fund, and for £100,000 from that fund to be used to pay for an existing peak-time bus route from Thatcham to Newbury to divert along Hambridge Lane.
These were also rejected – with the Lib Dems abstaining – with Mr Mackinnon stating that plans combatting the climate emergency were already accounted for from the council’s reserves, and that more research would need to be done before approving any changes to bus routes.