That was the assessment of the authority’s leader, Alistair Bradley, as members met to set the annual budget, which will see the town hall’s share of council tax bills rise by 1.99 percent from April – equivalent to £3.88 on a Band D property.
The council will also increase its annual green waste collection charge by £2.50 to £32.50 – the first rise in the five years since it was introduced.
However, it is cash from its income-generating investments – which also include the Primrose Gardens extra care scheme and Logistics House in Buckshaw Village – that has bridged the bulk of the £1.7m deficit in the council’s coffers for the forthcoming financial year.
Yet with a £1.1m funding gap still forecast for 2024/25, Cllr Bradley said that the authority had no choice but to increase council tax bills – because freezing them would have left a permanent hole in the books.
The Labour-run borough does, however, remain the authority with the second-lowest rate of the charge in Lancashire.
“I don’t think many [people] – even our opposition – would argue that we are the second-least effective…council in Lancashire – we are probably the highest-delivering council in Lancashire and yet our rates are lower than most,” Cllr Bradley said.
The Conservative opposition group called for council tax bills to remain static, with Clayton East, Brindle and Hoghton ward member Sam Chapman telling the meeting that it would be a way of councillors showing residents that “we get it” when it comes to the increased cost of living.
“We also need to do our part to avoid turning what experts say should be a temporary period of raised inflation into what could be a prices and wages spiral,” Cllr Chapman added.
Noting that the authority had frozen council tax for six out of the last nine years, Cllr Bradley said there was “no way” it could do so again, as the government would base decisions about future funding needed by the borough on an assumption that the authority had raised bills by the maximum amount permitted without a referendum.
He added: “We have a plan for Chorley, which is a coherent and organised plan. The proposals in this budget are sensible, they’re not radical – they are what we need at this point in time.”
Aside from the split over the council tax rise, there seemed to be a general consensus between the two parties over the finances – but the Conservatives did propose repurposing some cash to fund a three-year trial of a bus service to ferry youngsters from rural areas into the town centre Youth Zone and to provide free parking for battery electric vehicles.
Conservative group leader Martin Boardman said that the proposed Youth Zone bus could operate from a different part of the borough each weeknight, at a cost of £36,000 per year.
“I have spoken to many young people [in the rural areas] and the common consensus is that the teenagers in the villages struggle to get to the Youth Zone.
“There isn’t a safe and reliable bus service after a certain time at night – and…I wouldn’t let my 11, 12 or 13-year-old get on a bus on their own into Chorley and then travel back at eight o’clock in the evening,” Cllr Boardman added.
Meanwhile, Cllr Chapman said that the suggestion to scrap parking charges for electric vehicles would “reward and encourage” people to adopt cleaner technology.
Cllr Bradley said his group would accept the ideas – along with one to carry out a feasibility study into how to develop drop-in facilities for vulnerable residents in rural areas – but said that they should all be funded from general reserves, rather than the specific pots that the Tories had suggested, including apprenticeship and green agenda reserves. He also said that it "behoves" youngsters to use the Youth Zone bus when it is instated, after a previous incarnation of the service failed to take off
The authority’s environment and green space champion, Cllr Mark Clifford, welcomed the move to add £240,000 to the climate change reserve fund to keep it topped up at £500,000.
“It helps us to achieve our goal to go carbon-neutral by 2030,” he said, adding that the budget “has an awful lot of things in [it] for everyone” – including the soon-to-open Whittle health hub, in which the council has invested £3.5m.
The authority has £56m worth of capital expenditure planned between now and 2024/25 – including £2.8m worth of investment in play and community facilities and £2m for the borough’s leisure centres. Support for affordable housing schemes will total £900,000.
However, the council’s revenue funding will have fallen from £17.6m to £13.5m between 2016/17 and 2024/25. In order to balance the books by that point, the authority’s medium-term financial strategy states that the council will have to become “more financially self-sufficient – with specific emphasis on creating investment that provides benefits to residents and businesses whilst also generating income”.
In order to balance the books by that point, the authority’s medium-term financial strategy states that the council will have to become “more financially self-sufficient – with specific emphasis on creating investment that provides benefits to residents and businesses whilst also generating income”.
Savings will also have to be found by making the authority more efficient – via investment in infrastructure and IT – but while trying to “minimise the impact” on frontline services. There will also be more joint contract procurement with neighbouring South Ribble Borough Council.
The Labour and Conservative groups both agreed that there was a need for the government to give local authorities greater long-term financial certainty, rather than the current one-year funding settlement.
However, Cllr Boardman said that the council’s current forecasts were on the “pessimistic” side.
WHAT DOES CHORLEY MAKE FROM ITS INVESTMENTS?
The impact of the pandemic is forecast to reduce income from the council-owned Market Walk Shopping Centre by at least £166,000 per year for the “foreseeable future”, council budget papers show.
Nevertheless, the facility is still projected to generate £851,000 for the authority during 2022/23 – and the extension to the centre is expected to be fully occupied within the next 12 months.
The Logistics House Site in Buckshaw Village – which the authority bought for £33m in 2019 – will bring in £434,000 in rent, while the Primrose Gardens extra care scheme will raise £129,000.
However, the Strawberry Fields Digital Hub – which achieved 40 percent occupancy just prior to the pandemic – is expected to make a £23,000 loss in the next financial year, before generating £124,000 profit in 2023/24.
CHORLEY’S COUNCIL TAX BILLS FOR THE YEAR AHEAD
This is the Chorley Council share of council tax bills for 2022/23. It excludes the amounts levied by Lancashire County Council (the majority of the bill), the police and fire services, the 23 parish councils in Chorley and an additional “special expenses” charge which varies across different areas.
BAND A – £118.84
BAND B – £138.65
BAND C – £158.45
BAND D – £178.26
BAND E – £217.87
BAND F – £257.49
BAND G – £297.10
BAND H – £356.52
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