South Ribble sets its budget amidst row over council tax rise

South Ribble spends 14m on services
South Ribble spends 14m on services
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Councillors in South Ribble have clashed over whether the borough needs to raise council tax in the year ahead.

The Conservative-run authority will increase its share of residents’ bills by 1.99 percent - one percent less than permitted by government and below the hike planned in almost every district in Lancashire.

Council leader Margaret Smith told the annual budget-setting meeting that the rise would add just eight pence per day onto the amount paid by a Band D property - and rejected a Labour call for bills to be frozen for twelve months.

“If we don’t put council tax up, it has a cumulative, knock-on effect in future years. Some of the savings made this year are one-offs and we could find ourselves in a totally different position in future,” Cllr Smith said.

The authority has underspent by £219,000 this year after the government reversed a previous plan to claw back the costs of a grant which is being phased out across the country. South Ribble will put its surplus into reserves for capital projects.

But the Labour group said the cash should instead be used to take the pressure of council tax bill-payers.

“This is a needless hike - why on earth would we do it when we do not need to?” opposition leader Paul Foster asked.

“We want to see more done in terms of income generation - you are doing nothing at the moment, as you have for the past 12 years.”

Labour’s alternative budget set a target of £100,000 per for raising revenue from facilities like Worden Hall. The group also pledged £150,000 per year for the next five years to refurbish the borough’s playgrounds.

But deputy council leader Caroline Moon said the ruling group’s budget already contained cash to overhaul three Leyland playgrounds - Seven Stars, Haig Avenue and Leadale Green. And Margaret Smith later added that the council was also planning a rolling programme of refurbishment at other sites.

Meanwhile, all fees and charges in the borough - including for off-street parking - will remain unaltered in 2019/20.

There was cross-party support for the the council’s plans to better connect its green spaces and also develop a so-called leisure campus in the borough. The combined cost of the proposed schemes was revealed to be over £16m, part of a plan to borrow more than £20m over the medium term.

The Liberal Democrat group focused its attention on last year’s introduction of green waste charges and the cost of replacement bins.

“There are residents in the borough who have been subjected to an equivalent council tax increase way in excess of 30% - and that’s for a [green waste] service which doesn’t even collect for six weeks over Christmas, just after leaf fall and when people are wanting to dispose of natural Christmas trees,” Lib Dem leader David Howarth said.

He added that the income raised from green waste charges should have been used to lift the borough’s most hard-pressed residents out of paying council tax. Along with Labour, he also called for more transparency in the council’s books about the nature of overspends and underspends within departments.

Cllr Smith pointed out that the green waste fees were voluntary for anybody opting into the scheme, while cabinet member for resources, Susan Snape, heralded an “ambitious and deliverable plan” for the borough.

A forecast deficit of £490,000 by 2022/23 is expected to be bridged by 1.99 percent increases in council tax every year between now and then.

A report presented to councillors described as "significant" the forecast increase in business rates which will be available to the authority as part of a Lancashire-wide pooling arrangement during 2019/20. The county will retain 75 percent of the business rates which it raises and distribute them between all councils taking part in the pilot. However, South Ribble has established a reserve fund to cover any fluctuations which may occur in future years, including as a result of any business closures.

The council currently has overall reserves of £29m, which are expected to fall to £18m within the next five years.