‘Black hole’ warnings over council’s deficit as another tax rise agreed
PUBLISHED: 07:49 27 February 2020 | UPDATED: 08:08 27 February 2020
Councillors have been criticised for “putting their hands in people’s wallets” after they voted for a budget which is set to see council tax rise by almost £5 - for the second year in a row.
Taxpayers in north Norfolk are set to see their payments rise by £4.95, after district councils approved budget plans for the financial year.
And members from rival parties on the council exchanged barbs at the meeting, with Conservative councillors accusing the Liberal Democrat leadership of failing to address the deficit forecast "black hole" while the majority party hit back at the Tories' claims as "cloud cuckoo land".
The budget, published ahead of the meeting of North Norfolk District Council (NNDC)'s full council meeting on Wednesday, February 26, outlines plans to:
- Put £50,000 from the council's reserves towards the Sustainable Communities Fund,
- Give £33,000 to the Community Transport Fund,
- Transfer £150,000 to a newly created Environment Reserve, which will go towards achieving the council's target of carbon neutrality by 2030 and planting a tree for every resident,
- And spend £9,000 from the reserves on beach wheelchairs.
The council is also looking into setting up its own housing firm.
Members also voted against a Conservative amendment to put £25,000 towards a trial scheme to support the ambulance service, but the opposition were urged to return the motion, described as "poorly worded" to be reconsidered at a future date.
Eric Seward, (Lib Dem) cabinet member for finance, said the budget saw NNDC remain among the lowest district council tax rates in the country, and said the Liberal Democrat led council was delivering on its election pledges.
He said: "This administration is doing this without having to make cuts to services. Too much time has been spent in the last six months sorting out problems which this administration inherited from the previous one.
"This budget is balanced, prudent and realist."
However, he said there were concerns in the long term about how central government planned to fund local authorities, and that the council faced a widening deficit of £1.8m in 2021-22, £1.9m in 2022-23, and £2.2m in 2023-24.
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In response, Christopher Cushing, (Cons), said: "The deficit in coming years goes from £1.8m in 2021-22 to more than £2m in 2023-24. There are absolutely no plans by this administration about what we might do about this.
"Mr Seward says 'we can only hope' [for funding from central government] but you want to be looking at what you can do.
"You have no economic plan.
"You're spending far more on Splash than we would have."
And he added: "It's all very well saying we're going to plant trees and have wheelchairs for the disabled. These are good ideas but you've got to do more than that.
"We raised council tax once in seven years. You've now done so in two consecutive budgets. We want to tax people less but you're quite happy as a party of the left to put your hand in people's wallets to fund your schemes."
Council leader Sarah Butikofer said: "Commercialisation and making money for this council is at the core of what we're doing.
"We take providing services for our residents very seriously. You didn't raise council tax but you didn't work out how to sort out the black hole you left us either."
And Mr Seward said criticisms came from "cloud cuckoo land" and added: "I'm not going to take any lessons in commercialisation from the Conservatives."
While John Rest, leader of the Independent Group, added: "We particularly support the increase in council tax which we feel protects possible cuts in services.
"The ever-demanding environmental issues will be assisted by long-term funding.
"The proposed setting up of a development company - which I personally feel is long overdue - will bring the authority in line with other councils nationally."
The council also agreed to raise council tax by £4.95 for the average Band D property, taking it up to £153.72 - which is just under the threshold which triggers a referendum on the rise.
However, the council voted against awarding councillors a payrise, after a recommendation to increase the basic allowance rate from £5,254 in 2019-20 to £5,750 in 2020-21 was rejected.
The 9.4pc rise followed a recommendation from the Independent Remuneration Panel - but councillors did agree to other changes including on a carers and childcare allowance, travel expenses, £180-worth of broadband costs and a breakfast and lunch expenses scheme (£20 lunch and £8 breakfast).