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Budget is approved despite opposition

Council tax rise voted through at meeting, but councillors’ expenses cut isn’t

DEBATE: The Guildhall in Canterbury
DEBATE: The Guildhall in Canterbury

FLY-TIPPING, rats and councillors’ expenses are just three of the issues that were raised in the heated debate that ended in Canterbury City Council voting through its budget for the coming year. Councillors traded barbs with each other over whose fault the financial crisis had been, and who had really saved Westgate Hall, with the leader of the opposition, Alex Perkins, accusing another councillor of “talking b***cks” during an aggressive exchange about fly-tipping, when an opponent accused him of “electioneering”. Of the seven amendments proposed by Cllr Perkins’ Liberal Democrat minority only one was accepted by the Tory majority — a change to the presentation of next year’s budget to make it easier for readers to differentiate between Kent County Council fees and Canterbury City Council fees.

Council tax

One part of the budget to which the Lib Dems did not object was a 1.99 per cent increase in council tax, the maximum it can be raised without calling a referendum. Speaking at the meeting, council leader John Gilbey said the increase would protect essential public services from future cuts.

“This council has weathered the storm through 40 per cent cuts from central government funding. This increase, which amounts to an extra penny a day for Band D taxpayers, will allow the council to continue to protect taxpayers’ money. We are in this financial crisis together. We will spend wisely and we will not run up debt.”

Speaking in opposition, Cllr Perkins accused the Tories of exploiting the financial crisis to “vote through the cuts you wanted”, as he introduced his amendments, which included restoring £29,000 to the district’s voluntary organisations, a blanket 10 per cent reduction in pest-control charges and restoring the city’s night line service for people who wanted to report antisocial behaviour. The most hotly-contested amendment on the night was the Lib Dem’s bid to provide an extra £29,000 to the district’s voluntary organisations, which would almost cover the costs of a planned £39,000 reduction brought on by cost-saving cuts. Cllr Perkins argued that the money would only use up a fraction of the council’s reserves and “be the difference between the survival and collapse” of some local groups.

“For every £1 you invest in these groups, you get £30 of effort back. You cannot imagine a better rate of exchange. This is the cruellest cut: the emergency blanket, the safety net.”

But Conservative councillor Ashley Clarke argued that the council had a good record on voluntary services.

“We have the Area Member Opportunity Fund – three and a half years ago, we didn’t have this. We gave £10,000 to each area. It’s not all take away. take away, take away. There is good done on this council.”

Earlier in the meeting, Conservative councillors voted down an amendment to decrease the money available for councillors’ expenses and allowances by 10 per cent, arguing that such a move would stop the poorest in society from being able to afford to stand for office.

The budget in numbers

• £19.789 million: The amount of money in the annual budget; 40 per cent less than it was five years ago.
• One penny: The extra amount per day people in Band D tax brackets will pay as a result of the 1.99 per cent tax increase.
• £76,000; The total cost of the six proposed amendments from leader of the opposition Alex Perkins. None of them were accepted.
• £608,000: The amount of extra money in the council’s coffers, after under-spending last year.
• £30: The amount Cllr Perkins said the council would get back for every extra £1 it invested in volunteer groups.
• 27 The total number of the city’s 50 councillors who voted in favour of this year’s budget. The other 14 who were present either opposed the budget or abstained. The final nine did not attend the vote.

cYou say

LANCE SCOTT said:
“I think the council tax is high for the services we get, especially since so many of the essential services are being cut: like childcare, and refuse collection – we should be spending more money on that. In the past, the council used to provide these services.., not for nothing, but for less. They were more community-minded then.”

b PAULINE SCOTT said:
“I think the council tax is too high. And the councillors do it for so much money themselves that it seems disheartening. It’s a waste and they aren’t thinking about the community.”

PHIL JONES said:
a “I’m a student, so I don’t worry too much about the tax side of it, but when you look at taxes going up, and their allowances staying where they are, you realise we aren’t all in this together. It doesn’t work.”

10 things about the budget meeting

CANTERBURY City councillors met on Thursday last week to set the district’s budget for the year. Over the course of almost four hours, they looked at where and how to spend the £19.789 million. Here are ten things we learned

1. Cross-party consensus is still almost impossible
Of the seven amendments proposed by head of opposition, Alex Perkins, only one of them was accepted by the Conservative majority: to make next year’s budget easier to read.

2. Council tax IS going up
The council has decided to put up council tax in the district by 1.99 per cent; the highest it can be raised without voter approval. Leader John Gilbey said the rise was necessary to protect essential services.

3. Councillor allowances, however, are not going down
For the third year running, Cllr Perkins proposed that the pot of money used for councillor allowances be reduced by 10 per cent. The Conservatives voted against the amendment, arguing that the money was already being reduced due to there being fewer councillors after the next election, and further reductions would mean people from poorer backgrounds couldn’t afford to stand for office.

4. Rats ARE a problem in Canterbury.. but the council won’t reduce the costs to get rid of them
While the council agreed that some pests, especially rats, were a big problem, they could not agree on whether to reduce the cost to people to call in pest control to deal with infestations. In the closest vote of the night, 18 councillors voted in favour of a 10 per cent reduction in pest-control charges across the board, and 21 voted against it.

5. Beach huts are becoming more expensive… especially if you live here
Until this year, the council offered a discount to local people who rented beach huts in Herne Bay and Whitstable. Now, the annual rents in West Beach and Tankerton have been increased so that the cost is the same for residents and tourists. A West Beach hut will cost £434, and a Tankerton hut will cost £612.

6. If you want to report antisocial behaviour at night… call the police
The Lib Dem proposal to revive a night line that people can call if they see disruptive or antisocial behaviour at night was shot down by the Conservatives, who said they didn’t see a need for it, with the police in the area. “If you have a problem”, several councillors said, “call 999, or 101 .

7. Charges that could prevent fly-tipping are going up
A 3 per cent increase to the charge for collecting large items (from £13.80 per item, to £14.20) may not seem like much, but Lib Dems argued that this charge would mean more people not bothering to get their large pieces of rubbish cleared up and dumping them in the countryside. Conservative Rosemary Doyle said the increase “would be unlikely to make a difference” if people were deciding whether or not to dump their old fridges and sofas.

8. Canterbury wants independence from central government, at least in part…
Central government funding to local authorities has been facing cuts year on year since the financial crisis began. Councillor Gilbey said it was time for Canterbury to took at “the potential to become financially independent from Westminster” in the future. City councillors from all sides criticised the poor rate of exchange between the authority and central government; for every £50 million that CCC collects in business rates to send to central government, it only receives £4 million back, and the council’s annual budget has been cut by almost half in the past five years.

9. People still care about the city’s Local Plan
In the night’s only question from a member of the public, Jim Gascoyne, the prospective parliamentary candidate for Ukip, asked the council to repeal last year’s Local Plan, which says the council will need to build at least 780 dwellings every year, after new figures from the county council showed it might need as few as 592 houses per year. The question drew cheers from the public gallery but did not relate to the budget so had to be delayed until the next meeting of the council executive.

10. Any financial crisis is entirely Labour’s fault
Council leader John Gilbey blamed the Labour government before Alan Baldock, as the only Labour city councillor, jokingly “accepted full responsibility for the ills of the world’s economy”.

Herne Bay Times, February 25th 2015

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