Herts County Council budget approved – with council tax to increase
PUBLISHED: 08:27 27 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:39 27 February 2019
A package of Hertfordshire County Council budget measures have been voted through – with the county element of council tax to increase by 2.99 per cent from April.
The budget – known as the ‘2019/20–2022/23 Integrated Plan’ – sets out the Conservative-controlled county council’s spending priorities for the next three years, in the face of increasing demand for services, reductions in funding from central government and inflationary pressures on suppliers.
It includes investment in roads and schools, additional funding for those working in social care and funding for a new team to tackle domestic abuse.
But it also includes a series of measures designed to balance the books – with estimated savings of £19 million and council tax increases of 2.99 per cent.
Presenting the budget to council last week, Councillor Ralph Sangster – the executive member for resources and performance – said that at this time of “considerable uncertainty” there was a need to be cautious to ensure flexibility.
And he said: “It is in that context that we propose a budget which places at its centre the protection of vital frontline services, sound financial management and responding to the needs of Hertfordshire’s growing population.”
Mr Sangster told the meeting the decision to increase the council tax by 2.99 per cent – the maximum allowed without a referendum – reflected the view that residents would rather pay more than have service reductions.
“While we’d rather not place that extra burden on council tax payers, we have a responsibility to provide timely frontline services to those who need them the most,” he said.
“Like other local authorities, we are facing up to the challenges of reduced central government funding, a growing local population and increasing demand for vital support services – in particular for the disabled, vulnerable children and adults, and the elderly.”
He said the council had a strong track record of sensible financial management and tackling potential issues early and asking difficult decisions on funding priorities when required – but that they could not be complacent.
And while he said that by the end of 2019/20 that the council would have made savings of almost £2 billion over the last decade – he acknowledged that it was getting harder every year to balance the books.
With further significant savings needed by end of 2022/23, Mr Sangster recommended that work begin straight away to identify future savings.
At the meeting, opposition Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors put forward alternative budgets proposals.
The Lib Dems proposed additional funding was made available for highway locality budgets, where local councillors can fund highways projects.
They also proposed spending £3.6m on the wages of the county’s lowest paid social care staff.
They outlined a plan to spend £1m to fund socially required bus routes and £380,000 to extend the current Savercard scheme – which cuts the price of bus travel for young people – and to reverse the planned price increase.
In addition, there were plans for a £200,000 scheme to subsidise the cost of school uniform for low income parents.
The Lib Dems proposed to fund the plans from reserves and Invest to Transform budgets (£2.92m) and from business rates (£3.2m) – with additional funding from cuts to the council’s publicity budget (£500,000) and a reduction in security for empty council-owned buildings (£150,000).
Presenting the proposals, Lib Dem councillor Paul Zukowskyj said the proposals were balanced, considered and thoughtful.
Meanwhile, the Labour group also outlined alternative budget proposals that included the return of seven-day opening of household waste recycling centres, at a cost of £1m.
Their proposals would reverse the proposed £829k cuts to youth services and Youth Connexions, reinstate supported housing budgets at a cost of £300k, and increase highways locality budgets, which would cost £133,000.
They would also introduce council tax discounts for care leavers, at a cost of £55k. And they would spend £100k to look at the feasibility of bringing adult care services ‘in-house’.
The proposals also included £250,000 increase in the county council’s contribution to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services to speed up treatment for the most urgent cases.
The proposals would be paid for, according to the Labour group, by taking £2.3m from the council’s Invest to Transform budget and cutting the communications budget by £350,000. In future years they say it could be funded by cutting 24 of the council’s management posts, saving £1.726m a year.
Presenting the Labour proposals, Councillor Sharon Taylor said: “We believe that our alternative budget this year recognises fully the terrible impact that local government cuts are having on the services that our residents need.
“That’s why we have restricted our proposals only to those we feel are essential or those which will save money in the longer term.
“On the shortfall in our own children’s and adult services this year it’s time we took a cross party approach and wrote to the government together to tell them they have cut our services to the bone and we now need some holistic intensive therapy – which is shorthand for more money – and not just a tiny sticking plaster on a severed artery.”
Mr Sangster said the opposition budget proposals had been some of the most reckless and financially damaging he had ever witnessed – demonstrating why they were not fit to manage the council’s finances.
Ultimately the Lib Dem and Labour proposals were defeated and the Conservative budget plans went through unchanged.
As part of the plans the amount of council tax charged by Hertfordshire County County for a ‘band D’ property will increase, from £1,320.46 to £1,359.94.
However the final council tax bills issued to residents will also include elements for the police, their district or borough council and, if applicable, the parish council too.
The county council increase is the equivalent or 76 pence a week – with Mr Sangster telling the meeting that 67 per cent of residents who responded to a consultation had said they would rather see council tax increase than see cuts in services.