SOUTH RIBBLE COUNCIL BUDGET 2020: council tax and investment plans revealed
A row over how South Ribble Borough Council should invest its money dominated the debate as the authority set its annual budget.
Delivering Labour’s first financial proposals in the 12 years since the party was last in control of the authority, cabinet member for finance, Matthew Tomlinson, hailed what he described as “exciting and optimistic” plans.
The budget saw funding confirmed for many of the schemes which the new administration has approved since last May’s elections. These include the elimination of a minimum council tax contribution for low income households, a £5 reduction in green waste collection charges, a holiday hunger programme for schoolchildren and a project to tackle crime and disorder.
Residents will pay an extra 1.99 percent in the district’s share of council tax from April - equivalent to an additional £4.36 per year on a Band D property. But Cllr Tomlinson said scrapping the minimum payment and reducing brown bin costs would mean more than half of households will pay the council less in total this year than last.
“We inherited a rudderless ship with a demoralised crew - a ship with no sense of direction,” he declared.
“In just eight months, the current administration has...embarked on several exciting and innovative projects which have caught the imagination of our staff and residents. We’ve turned what was potentially a shipwreck into something that is shipshape.”
The opposition Conservative group said it supported much of what was in the budget, but criticised Labour for implementing in power the kind of council tax increases they have previously opposed. However, it was the planned investment in major capital schemes that really fractured the cross-party harmony.
Conservative shadow cabinet member Damien Bretherton said he could not support what he described as an “unnecessary oversend” on the £2.2m plan for new council housing on the former McKenzie Arms site in Bamber Bridge. He claimed that the cost of building the properties to the exacting ‘passivhaus’ standard would cost more than they would ultimately be worth.
“We propose reducing the intended build cost to a more prudent £1.5m. We would leave the £700,000 in reserves to be used for future developments of good quality affordable homes,” Cllr Bretherton said.
He also opposed a planned £10m investment in an “extra care” scheme in the borough - a new type of accommodation which combines meeting the care needs of elderly residents with maintaining their independence. Cllr Bretherton said that should be left to “specialised providers”.
But council leader Paul Foster told the meeting that it was Lancashire County which wanted districts to develop the schemes, deriding the suggestion that South Ribble should be the only borough which could not make the project a reality.
Members also heard that the authority will realign its £4.5m property investment strategy and limit it to doing deals only in South Ribble. Cllr Tomlinson revealed that a rejected proposal by the council’s consultants to buy an office block in Southampton was the only suggestion that had ever been brought forward - meaning that the money was left earning the “princely sum” of 0.6 percent in the bank.
But Conservative councillor Alan Ogilvie questioned the wisdom of using almost half of the fund to redevelop Worden Hall, which he claimed at the forecast rates of return would only pay off the investment after 190 years. He also criticised the wider investment strategy.
“The current proposed investments will all require significant council money to maintain them as high quality facilities in the years ahead. The idea of investments should be to provide benefits for our residents and a financial return that will generate funds for this council.
"No doubt the administration will argue that these investments have a social value...but the hard fact is social value does not pay the bills.”
But Cllr Foster accused him of being “disingenuous” or failing to understand the issue.
“Every big scheme in this budget has to come forward to cabinet with a detailed business plan.
"The council housing in Bamber Bridge is funded wholly by developer contributions which the [Conservative] adminstration sat on for years. What is there in this budget that every member of this council cannot support?”
The Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth - who supports the minority Labour administration on an issue-by-issue basis - welcomed the package for reflecting his party’s priorities.
“It’s like looking at the desert menu in a good restaurant - we’ve had years of bitter blueberry pie, but now we have a wonderful red cherry cake covered in a marvellous yellow custard.
“When we were in national government, we were proud to take the poorest out of paying income tax and, in this borough, we are proud to take the poorest out of paying council tax.
We consistently criticised the implementation of a green waste tax on our residents - a tax the Conservatives assured us they would never implement and then did. And we consistently opposed the bin tax where the Conservatives had no consideration of how they were going to replace our bins when they began to fall apart [except for] charging our residents £30 for the privilege - that is now gone,” Cllr Howarth said.
The Conservatives set out their own amendments to the budget - including proposals for ‘living wall’ environmental features and a new playground in Walton Park. While deputy council leader Mick Titherington said some of the ideas may be considered in future, they were voted down without debate at the meeting.
The council is facing a forecast funding gap of £1.2m by 2022/23. Currently, the plan is to cover half of it with reserves and the remainder from savings.
Reserves are expected to fall from £19m to £13m over the next three years, as part of the council’s investment plans. Borrowing will rise from £1.3m this year to £20m in 2022/23 - but that is largely on the basis of yet-to-be confirmed proposals for a new leisure facility in the borough, which is currently earmarked to begin that year.