Tories vow council tax freeze won’t hit servicesBy Victoria Smith
February 29, 2012
Taxpayers will not see the amount they pay to Wokingham Borough Council increase this year.
But the ruling Conservative party has been accused of hiding costs and introducing stealth taxes for waste collection.
Wokingham Conservatives declared services will not be cut in the next financial year, despite saving £4.5 million, while millions will be invested in schools and the town centre regeneration project.
However, the Liberal Democrats questioned the transparency of the budget, saying it does not go into enough detail of where money is going.
Councillor David Lee, leader of the council, said when commending the budget for approval at a meeting at the civic offices last Thursday, February 23: “Here in Wokingham we are well used to being at the end of the funding queue.
“We have for many years been the worst funded authority in England.
“However with a Conservative administration and excellent staff we have risen to the challenge of a 14 per cent cut in this current year and a 10 per cent cut next year.
“And we will not be cutting services.
“Under this Conservative administration and our Transformation programme we have saved some £16 million over the last four years and the budget we are proposing will save a further £4.5 million next year.”
Councillor Prue Bray, leader of the Lib Dems, said the budget failed to mention Wokingham Enterprise Ltd, the firm set up by the council to oversee the regeneration, and did not specify how much money will be spent via Optalis, the council’s new company set up to run social care services.
She said: “I have asked the question separately and got the answer that the council has a contract with Optalis worth £9.2 million.
“I cannot tie this figure with any of the figures given in the revenue budget for commissioning services.”
She added the one-off grant from the Government that is enabling the council to freeze its share of the tax will create an immediate 2.5 per cent pressure next year.
She said: “I am not in favour of asking residents to pay more council tax in difficult financial times.
“But I am also not in favour of only looking to the short-term.
“The belief of the last Labour Government that you can buy things today but not have to pay for them until tomorrow is one of the things that got into the current economic mess.
“From that point of view a one-year council tax freeze grant strikes me as not a very good idea at all.
“While I can see the attraction, you may live to regret taking it.”
Cllr Sue Smith, Lib Dem councillor for Loddon, said the new green waste collection charge of £60 per year would mean a resident will pay £600 over 10 years for a wheelie bin that cost the council £25.
She added the alternative paper sacks for green waste cost £1 each for residents, but cost the council 25p to buy.
She said: “We have always said the cost of joining the green waste scheme was too high – other councils do it for much less.
“And not to have any concessions for those on low incomes is appalling, given those margins.”
Conservative Cllr Gary Cowan, executive member for environment at the council, pointed out the new green waste scheme will mean 10,000 additional homes can receive the service and the cap on waste for households will save the council £1 million a year.
Cllr Beth Rowland, Lib Dem member for South Lake, said the council’s capital programme for schools shows less money will be spent than in previous budgets.
The budget was rubber-stamped after the ruling Conservative group voted in favour of it. An average Band D property can expect to pay £1,199.24 for 2012/13.
Key features of the budget
- Town centre regeneration project to receive £37 million over the coming years, as well as £400,000 in the next financial year for pre-application work and a £200,000 contingency fund. Borrowing costs are expected to be around £1.5m over the next three years.
- Schools to receive £26m over the next three years for improvement work.
- £500,000 to build a new special education needs unit at All Saints Primary School in Norreys Avenue.
- More than £3m for the station link road project.
- More than £7m for improvements to highways.
- £19m to improve the council’s housing stock.
- Budget for adult social care to increase to more than £40m with an additional £1.1m towards preventative and mental health care.
- £300,000 to be spent over the next two years on a feasibility study for a new secondary school in the borough. This refers to the plan to move The Emmbrook School to Arborfield to cater for new housing planned for the south of the borough.