Council tax increase and new bin charges ‘necessary’ to fill £1.5m gap

Cllr Dennis-Harburg, leader of North Herts Council

Cllr Dennis-Harburg, leader of North Herts Council - Credit: North Herts Council

North Herts District Council has passed its budget for the next year, as the council leader warned a council tax increase was necessary to help fill a £1.5m budget gap in the next four years.

The council leader said it was “not viable” to freeze tax rates, and the council would be looking at making service changes to find the necessary savings before 2026.

As part of the budget, there will be an annual £5 council tax increase for Band D properties, with additional charges for new bins also coming into effect next year.

The changes will include the new charge for replacement of purple waste bins at £40 for a new 180L bin and £25 for a refurbished bin, and the delivery of a new garden waste bin will increase by £5 to £40 for new subscribers.

There will also be a rise in waste charges in-line with inflation, rather than a £9 increase proposed at an earlier stage.

The council also dropped proposals to introduce a new charge for the use of public toilets.

The leader of the opposition group said the plans lacked “big ideas” and criticised the new charges, during a meeting of full council on February 10.

The meeting also saw a victory for residents who petitioned the council for a longer outdoor swimming season at Hitchin and Letchworth lidos, with the council passing an amendment to extend the open air pool season this year at a cost of £25,000.

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The amendment also committed another £25,000 to additional wilding projects, as part of the council’s sustainability objectives.

As part of efforts to bring in additional income, councillors backed plans to run events from Hitchin Town Hall and North Hertfordshire Museum, and to launch a new community lottery.

The council’s £7m investment budget for the year includes the first half of a £4m investment into a museum and commercial storage facility in Hitchin, and a £1m commitment for an extension for Royston leisure centre in the 2023/24 financial year.

The council has also committed another £180,000 to renovating playgrounds across the district, over £866,000 on repairs and improvements to car parks, and indicated it would explore improving access to The Dell in Hitchin.

Council leader Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg said she was proud of the work done to prepare this year’s budget but said central government funding has restricted the council’s spending.

Cllr Dennis-Harburg said the council needed to make £1.5m of savings each year by 2026, and while the council would act more commercially she said it’s “not viable” to avoid a council tax increase.

She said: “Unfortunately, years of austerity under successive governments means the opportunities for efficiencies are pretty much all gone.

"We’re not quite at peak efficiency yet, but clearly it’s going to become harder and harder to make gains and deliver the added value services that our residents desperately need for us to provide them.

“We remain committed to developing income and acting more commercially, although we have to be realistic about what can be achieved given the economic impacts of COVID-19. We therefore have to plan on the basis we might need to deliver a significant savings through service changes.”

“While I would love to ease the burden on our residents by not raising the district council element of their council tax, the reality is that it’s not viable if we want to be a council that delivers the services that our residents value, and if we want to be sustainable in the medium term.”

Leader of the opposition Conservative group, councillor Claire Strong said she was disappointed there were no “big ideas, highlights or big opportunities to generate income”.

She said the council hadn’t taken advantage of opportunities to bring in new revenue streams, and also took aim at the rise in bin charges.

She added: “I’m quite shocked to see that this administration, who had campaigned so much about taking out bin charges, are trying to increase them. For that, and that reason alone, I can’t support this budget.”

However, she added she was supportive of a number of elements within the proposals, including more investment in the council’s planning department, and opted to abstain from the vote, rather than oppose the budget.

The amendment passed unanimously. The revenue and investment budgets passed by 21-0, with 15 and 16 abstentions respectively.