On Thursday I took my seat at the official meeting of the Full Council to debate and vote on the council’s budget for the next financial year, 2023-2024.
As always, the annual budget meeting was preceded by numerous other meetings, debates and briefings stretching back months. This was the fourth time I’ve been through the process so it was much more familiar to me than when I first became your councillor. Colleagues who have been councillors for many years told me this was the most difficult budget-setting they’ve ever known in terms of the challenges faced. They aren’t exaggerating.
Over the 13 years that the Conservatives have been in control of the UK Government tens of millions have been stripped out of the council’s budget. The local Labour group who run the council have done an amazing job of maintaining services over this period, finding ways to do more with less. There really is nothing left that can be cut back. Into this picture we now have the pressure of very high inflation, in excess of 10%. When you add 10% on to budgets that are already costed in the hundreds of millions that is incredibly difficult. It also explains why Council Tax will be raised by 4.99%.
Here are the main takeaways:
- Councillors voted to freeze their “allowances” for the year ahead. I have written about this in more detail here.
- A multi-million pound package of support has been agreed to ensure that thousands of the most vulnerable residents are protected from the rise in Council Tax.
- Several million pounds are being assigned from a fund known as the ‘Strategic Reserve’ to ensure the budget balances. This fund traditionally acts as a buffer to protect the council against financial shocks. The fact that it is now being deployed for the first time in many years shows that we are in unprecedented times.
As is usually the case at the annual budget meeting the Conservatives put forward an alternative budget. In the main their budget agreed on most points with the one that was ultimately agreed. I noted some important differences that say a lot about the priorities of the Conservatives vs Labour:
They did propose a marginally lower Council Tax increase, of 4.63%. This means that residents in a Band D property would save 12p a week under the Tory proposals vs the Labour proposals.
- They funded this by taking a different approach to allocating around £400,000 of Council Tax support. Labour proposals target this money to the most vulnerable. The Conservatives use it to reduce everyone’s Council Tax bill, no matter how poor or wealthy they are.
- Another big dividing line was on the Climate Emergency. As the Labour Party we believe that action to achieve Net Zero is very urgent. The Conservatives believe that everything is fine and we can wait another 20 years before we start investing in solutions. They proposed to take £1 million from the Net Zero budget to re-allocate it to filling potholes.
- Finally, there was a point about how the council communicates with residents. Labour’s plan continues with the popular and informative council magazine that is delivered to every home at a cost of £29,000. The Conservatives wanted to stop the magazine and to replace it with 40 community noticeboards at a cost of £60,000.
All in all, I believe that residents can be confident that in passing this budget Labour councillors like myself have taken a fair and responsible approach to protecting the services you rely on in these difficult times.
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