Council tax freeze 'won't last forever'By Victoria Smith
February 22, 2012
Taxpayers can expect to be charged the same amount for Wokingham Borough Council’s services for another year, but could face an increase of at least 2.5 per cent in the future.
Savings of £4.5 million are to be made in the next year, alongside spending on major projects such as the town centre regeneration and making schools and other council buildings greener by installing solar panels.
The council is to debate its budget during a meeting today where it is expected to approve a freeze in its share of the council tax.
This has been made possible for a second year by a government grant – but the money, equivalent to a 2.5 per cent increase, has created a dilemma for some local authorities because it is not expected to be offered next year.
Some councils, such as Brighton and Hove, have opted to not take the grant and increase the council tax.
Graham Ebers, general manager of business services at Wokingham council, said: “It has created a dilemma up and down the country.
“This council tax grant is for one year only, so that means if everything else stays the same once that drops out we have an immediate 2.5 per cent growth on top of inflation and growth in the cost of core services as well.
“Obviously the decision here is to take the grant then there will be a 2.5 per cent pressure next year that every local authority will face.”
The council is saving £4.5 million money through initiatives including placing solar panels on schools, a new waste collection scheme limiting the amount of waste households can throw out, shared working with other councils, including legal services, and cuts to jobs.
The council expects to save £72,000, increasing to £74,000 annually in the following two years, by installing solar panels on its Shute End offices and some schools.
The work to install solar panels on schools is expected to cost more than £1 million in 2012/13.
Budget papers show £100,000 will be saved on reimbursement of bus passes in the next year and nearly £1 million will be saved through the new waste and recycling contract.
The council has already shed 117 full-time posts, with 30 of these made through redundancies and the others lost through natural wastage. The council is to lose a further 33 jobs in the next year.
Big spends include the town centre regeneration project, which is to cost the taxpayer £37 million over the next three years, and £127 million on capital schemes, including £6 million to improve Bulmershe School in Woodley.
Councillor David Lee, leader of the council, said: “Everyone has tightened their belts in recent years.
“Wokingham Borough Council is no different. We have been working hard to set a sound budget – a huge challenge in the current climate as we are required to find savings of around £4.5 million for 2012/13.
“And this is on top of the £6.5 million amount we had to save last year – all of this while protecting the front-line services that our residents rely on.
“We will also be launching our new vision next week, which outlines a set of principles and priorities that will determine and shape our work this year and in the future.
“This is reflected in our investment decisions for example around education, highways and Wokingham town centre regeneration.
“Last year we protected frontline services by increasing efficiency and restructuring services to deliver savings.
“This will continue this year to secure our long-term financial sustainability. It’s not about cuts and savings, but about better serving our residents and doing so efficiently.
“It’s these efficiencies that will provide the savings needed to give us financial security.”
Cllr Prue Bray, leader of Wokingham Liberal Democrats, said the party has serious concerns about the risks involved with the town centre project and the pitfalls of the new waste scheme.
She said: “The budget has risk, risk, risk written all over it.”
The council is the lowest funded unitary authority in the country, receiving £120 per person compared to Reading’s £333 per person and Slough’s £407 per person.