THE Tunbridge Wells budget passed full council last Wednesday (February 22) with the vote to approve measures to resolve a £1.8million shortfall splitting along party lines.
Conservatives voted unanimously to approve the package that will dictate spending for the 2017/18 financial year, with all members of the opposition – bar the Mayor who abstained – voting against.
Councillor Paul Barrington-King, Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance, said the authority had faced ‘seismic’ challenges in recent years as it seeks to mitigate the effects of a rapid withdrawal of central Government funding.
“While other authorities are sinking, ours is swimming strongly. But the Government is not telling us where to swim to,” he said.
He lamented public perception of the council, stating it often bore the blame’ for tax rises and charges, but much of the income goes to the Treasury. Of the £52.6million in business rates collected by the council, only £2.2million stays within the borough.
Council Leader David Jukes highlighted many of the restrictions faced by the authority when it comes to raising revenue.
He pointed out central Government regulations mean local taxpayers are forced to subsidise those seeking planning permission to the sum of around £1.2million a year, while licencing costs an another £60,000 because fees are set centrally.
Cllr Jukes said this heightened the case for a ‘user pays principle’ in order to shift the cost from taxpayers onto developers and licence seekers, by allowing the council to determine the cost of applying.
He also said much of the income raised through increases in parking charges was itself swallowed up by the planned business rate hike.
“The allowance budget is not only bomb proof it is nuclear proof”
Support was also voiced by Benenden & Cranbrook Cllr Sean Holden, who praised the fact the borough has the fourth lowest level of council tax out of Kent’s 12 authorities and dismissing opposition concerns that it was ‘artificially low’.
The budget was criticised by Liberal Democrat Cllr Ben Chapelard who described it as ‘utterly unacceptable’ to his party.
He said: “Having the lowest council tax is not visionary if we cannot do the things we need. We know we are suffering more because politically, due to conservatives running the council, the council tax is kept artificially low.”
Cllr Chapelard said of the £400,000 in efficiencies this year, £292,000 comes ‘from staff reductions’.
“There have been 80 redundancies since 2010. At the same time our councillor’s wages have only dropped by two per cent.
“The allowance budget is not only bomb proof it is nuclear proof. This compares to a loss of 96 per cent of its money from central Government. At some point we will have to show real leadership and take a cut,” he said.
Labour’s Cllr Munn said his party would refuse to back the budget on the basis of changes to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme approved by the council in December.
He described the changes, which would see almost 4,000 people on low pay having the amount of council tax they have to pay rise from 18.5 per cent to 20 per cent of the total, as an ‘invisible but significant ingredient’ of the budget.
Cllr Munn said a consequence of the scheme, which introduced in 2012 to replace the previous 100 per cent council tax exemption, was the ‘growth in demand’ for food banks in this ‘unequally prosperous borough.’