UPDATED: Council tax rise would have been ‘unfair’ on Leighton residents

The White House, Leighton Buzzard

The White House, Leighton Buzzard

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Leighton-Linslade Town Council has decided not to increase the amount of council tax it seeks to collect from residents for 2017-18.

But although the budget was agreed on Monday evening with 15 councillors in favour, notably four councillors (Cllr Tony Morris, Cllr Ray Berry, Cllr David Bowater and Cllr Amanda Dodwell) abstained from backing it.

To achieve a 0% increase, the council will use £11,541 from its balances, a move the quartet was uncomfortable with as they fear it could jeopardise the authority’s ability to fund new projects in the future.

A joint statement from the councillors, who had suggested a 4.5% rise, explained: “A number of us did not agree with a 0% increase in council tax. The proposed budget includes the contingency to draw down on reserves to meet the town council’s expenditure, and a commitment to borrow money to fund additional projects.

“We do not want to see the town council’s reserves used in this way, and we do not want to increase the council’s borrowing – any money borrowed now has to be paid off in the future, and will affect future council budgets.

“Furthermore, we are concerned that this move will limit the council’s ability to undertake projects such as those we have completed in recent years - Astral Park, Mentmore Pavilion, the Splash and Play and the Beach – we strongly believe an increase is necessary to allow us to continue to deliver new facilities for the town.

They continued: “We appreciated that any increase wasn’t going to be popular, but we put forward a proposal which would not adversely affect household budgets – the 4.5% increase we proposed would have seen an average Band D property-owner paying about 13 pence per week extra. The council has an obligation to be financially responsible, and we believe that it was in the interests of the town to ask for this small increase.

“The town council offers excellent value for money, and we wanted to ensure that the council is adequately funded in the coming years to continue the excellent work it has been doing, and to provide the wide range of events and services that we all enjoy.”

The council has budgeted to spend £2,126,752 in the forthcoming financial year – including £200,000 for future capital projects, a £5,000 contribution to Citizens Advice, and an increase in the mayor’s allowance in line with inflation.

The level it has set for an average Band D property remains the same as 2016-17 at £149.58, but as the number of properties it can charge has increased by just over 300 it will bring in slightly more tax this time at £2,115,211 – which means an £11,541 contribution from general reserves to balance the books.

A council report states that for 2016-17 it had budgeted a year ago to take £104,682 from its “healthy” general reserves of £817,584 in a desire to leave the council tax charged unchanged. However with the end of this financial year approaching that figure has been revised down to £66,182.

Councillors voting for the freeze say that to allow a rise “at a time of economic uncertainty and with household budgets under pressure would not be fair to the people of Leighton-Linslade, nor was it necessary”.

They added: “We have an agreed programme of town council projects for the immediate future that are already fully funded, without the need to increase the precept or, indeed, borrowing. To simply increase the precept now to put money into the Town Council coffers for no good reason would not be something residents would welcome.”

Council leader, Cllr Ewan Wallace, said: “There is no need to increase the very modest level of council borrowing to fund existing projects and there are no plans to do so.

“The town council is always looking at how best to deliver services and projects for the community. There may be future projects, yet to be identified or confirmed, where borrowing may be preferable at this time of historic low interest rates, especially where revenue generation would repay those borrowings, instead of asking town residents to pay for them up front with the financial burden that would cause. But that is for the future, not now.

“The use of slightly over £11,000 from the council’s General Reserves in 2017-18 needs to be seen in context. This sum represents less than 2% of those reserves and will therefore have a truly minimal impact with the reserves remaining at a healthy level.

“It is important that the council is seen to act in a financially responsible way and this is what we strongly believe we are doing. The council’s finances are strong and there can be no justification for asking our residents to pay more in advance of any additional finance being required.

“If there is a true requirement to raise the precept in any forthcoming year, then that will be done but now is not the time. We are deeply committed to continuing the excellent work the council has done in recent years and providing the wide range of facilities, services and events enjoyed by residents.”

Cllr Dr Clive Palmer, Deputy Leader added: “Before the council meeting the Conservative Group of Councillors met to discuss the budget. At the meeting Councillors Berry, Bowater, Dodwell and Morris proposed increasing the precept by 4.5%. The proposition to increase the precept by more than twice the rate of inflation was decisively rejected as undesirable and unnecessary, by the 20 strong Conservative Group Councillors, with only four votes in favour.”

The lion’s share of the council tax bill goes to Central Beds Council, with the needs of the police and fire service, plus parish councils adding to the overall final charge.