Chorley's budget battle - reducing the risk of uncertainty or taking too much in council tax?

Chorley Council has set its budget for the year ahead - but what do future years hold for its finances?
Chorley Council has set its budget for the year ahead - but what do future years hold for its finances?
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Chorley councillors have approved a budget which they were told reflects the “uncertainty” facing local authorities.

The borough’s share of council tax will increase by nearly three percent and a range of fees will either rise – or be introduced – to help bridge a forecast budget gap of £3.8m over the next three years.

READ MORE >>> All the details of Chorley's budget plans for the year ahead

Peter Wilson, cabinet member for finance at the Labour-run authority, said it had been a “tough choice” to ask residents to pay more, but warned that the council had little idea about how it would be affected by forthcoming changes to its income.

“Locally, there is a huge amount of uncertainty – from 2020, we don’t know what we’re going to get,” Cllr Wilson said.

“We have had to make a lot of reasonable assumptions in this budget,” he added.

Papers presented to a meeting of the full council revealed that a potential redistribution of business rates between different levels of local government in Lancashire could leave Chorley worse off. A pilot scheme during 2019/20, which will see most of the councils in the region retain more of what they raise from businesses, could benefit the borough by an extra £600,000 – but the council has based its budget on the expectation that the boost will be temporary.

The impact of a government review of local authority funding and a slowdown in income from new housing developments could take £1.3m out of the council’s coffers from the start of the next decade, members were told.

But deputy leader of the Conservative opposition group, Martin Boardman, claimed the council was being too “pessimistic” and condemned Labour for raising more than it could spend in recent years – and so having to carry it over. to future budgets. He said an average of £720,000 per year had gone unused since 2013 and proposed that council tax should instead go up by 1.5 percent this year.

“You raise the revenue and you deliver some of your priorities – but only about half of them,” Cllr Boardman said.

“We think you can do it with less…with no financial risk to the council. The budget has been based on the absolute worst case scenario – a middle line should be drawn.”

Chorley residents living in a Band D property will pay £171 for the cost of district services on an overall bill of £1,788 during 2019/20. That is likely to keep the borough amongst the districts with the lowest bills in Lancashire – last year, only Ribble Valley residents paid less.

Council leader Alistair Bradley said the difference between what the Tories had proposed and Labour’s plan amounted to five pence a week for the average household and warned that there was an expectation from government that councils should raise all they could locally – or lose out.

"It's the small things we invest in, which people don't see, that are vitally important. It's heartening to hear our emergency service partners say, because of our investment in early intervention, [the population's] health is better," Cllr Bradley said.

Both parties acknowledged the risks posed by uncertainty surrounding Brexit – and the council has set aside £300,000 to support businesses and its own priorities in case the effect of leaving the EU is felt at a local level. But Cllr Boardman added that people in Chorley who voted to leave “see a bright future”.

Amongst Labour’s plans for investment over the next year are £1.7m of improvements to Astley Hall and the creation of a £2.7m sports facility at West Way playing fields.

In the Conservatives' budget statement – which they decided not to put to a vote they said they couldn't win – the opposition laid out a proposal for feasibility studies into their own vision for a sports village and the development of more town centre accommodation aimed at university students.

The Tories also called for a £850,000 rural development fund, £200,000 of which would be dedicated to working with providers to improve broadband in outlying areas. But Cllr Boardman clashed with Labour's Kim Snape over the issue - she said the cash was insufficient, while he claimed it was "a good place to start".

The Conservative group championed a plan which they said harnessed the"untapped potential" of Chorley and delivered something for all parts of the borough.

However, Cllr Wilson warned that enacting anything other than the Labour proposal was "cavalier and dangerous".

Following approval of the budget, the council will continue to invest in its priority areas, including early intervention services for vulnerable residents, street cleaning and £100,000 of support this year for Chorley’s Youth Zone, which opened last May - and which the meeting heard had caused anti-social behaviour in the borough to "collapse".

COMMUNITY HALL CHARGES COULD RISE FOR SOME GROUPS

Conservative opposition councillor Eric Bell told the annual budget meeting that the borough was not charging enough to rent space in the six council-run community halls in Chorley.

"Some of them cost only £4.40 per hour - it's out of tune," Cllr Bell said.

"The hourly rate should be in line with the cost of providing the facilities. Village halls [which are not run by the borough] are charging about £16 per hour," he added.

Members heard that the council's community halls currently cost the authority £235,000 per year to operate and cabinet member for early intervention, Bev Murray, said some charges may change.

"Community centres should be there to serve the community and not necessarily make a profit," Cllr Murray said.

"But we are looking at the [price] banding of different users, because there are people that use our community centres who run a business from them and there others who maybe charge £2 for a toddler group or coffee morning. So we are looking at covering a greater proportion of our overheads when the centres are hired to profit-making businesses - and then balancing that out with the groups that need our help.

"We need to remember every community centre is different and has a different dynamic," she added.