Different choices and less waste could have stopped yet another Council Tax increase during the cost of living crisis
by Cllr Heather Williams, Conservative Group Leader at South Cambridgeshire District Council
There are many things that I welcomed in the South Cambs District Council budget such as money towards environmental improvements. I supported money towards building more council houses, something I believe we desperately need more of. However, other areas I could not support, primarily the increase of Council Tax and getting into further debt to make commercial investments.
Many are experiencing a difficult financial time with fuel costs and day to day bills ever increasing, but wages not. With the current cost of living problems, I could not support increasing the council tax to the maximum legally allowed when I could not see any extra benefit that would bring for residents. Things like spending £200,000 on recarpeting the council building could wait, over the last four years over £500,000 has been used to pay staff to leave - if this stopped, we could afford to not put up council tax. The District Council will also be putting up council tenants’ rents by the legal maximum, again in this current climate I could not in clear conscious support this.
The council’s budget is reliant on their investment strategy. We can see that the only real need for the council to borrow and get into debt is to make commercial investments, like buying offices to rent out. Councils looking to bring in money from investments is not a principle that I disagree with entirely, but I don't believe we should be borrowing nearly £150m to do so in uncertain times especially when this risk could burden residents with further tax.
I feel that many councillors may have lost sight as to why we are elected, we are there to serve residents and make decisions that benefit residents. Frequently now the council will talk of it’s “customers” but our residents are NOT customers, they do not have a choice where to spend their money, they do not have the ability to change to another supplier or shop somewhere else - they are legally obliged to pay whatever the Council demands. As councillors we should be guardians of our residents’ money, not spend it on more councillor ‘special’ allowances, as has been the case in recent years, or vanity projects. And most important of all, especially at this time, we should not be asking for more money without clearly showing why that increase is truly necessary. At a recent Cabinet meeting the Lead Member for Finance implied Council Tax should always go up year on year no matter what. I cannot agree with this, there must be an identified need to increase the burden of tax on residents, just because we can does not mean we should.
This year residents’ council tax bills will be compounded with other increases from other authorities including the County Council who again are increasing council tax by the legal maximum, one of the highest county precepts in the area. They are also making increases without offering an explanation as to why it is needed, and indeed are putting the money into reserves (a councils form of savings). When discussing the County Council proposals Cllr Steve Count, Conservative Group Leader at Cambridgeshire County Council said “The Liberal Democrat led County Council puts council tax up by maximum, to put £6.5m into General reserves, something we oppose. We also want to stop them using money allocated for potholes, to pay off debt; insisting the money should be spent on our roads as intended”. So here we have council tax going up to put money in a pot with us having no idea what it will be spent on.
There are other increases in the council tax one being the increase in the Policing precept, but the way this has been handled has been in a completely different, and in my view, appropriate way. Residents were consulted via a survey in January and allowed to share their views before a decision was made. It has been made clear why the increase was necessary and how the additional money will be spent. Most importantly in the current economic situation, residents have been able to have their say in this decision.
I am not opposed to tax ever being increased, but I do not agree with unnecessary tax increases. Especially now, we should be setting Council Tax to the level we need. I truly believe that the Lib Dem administration at the District Council could have made different choices, wasted less money and not increased tax at this time.