BROMSGROVE District Council approved a £5 per month rise on the average council tax bill on Wednesday night after voting through its 2021/22 budget.
It means residents in a Band D house will pay an average of £1,933 per month (depending on parish councils) for services provided by district and county councils, West Mercia Police and Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service.
The council has budgeted around £1million of reserves to be used ‘in the worst case scenario’ for shortfalls caused by lost revenue in light of the pandemic and the lack of Government grant. But it added it hoped it would not have to use it.
With many councillors agreeing with the leading Conservative Group that it was the right budget at the current challenging time, it was voted through with 23 voting for, and three each abstaining or going against it.
Bromsgrove District Council leader Coun Karen May and the portfolio holder for finance Coun Geoff Denaro said it was a fiscally responsible and fully costed budget which would protect frontline services, despite a very challenging year.
They added it had ‘a green thread going through it’ as the authority strived towards net zero carbon.
Earlier Bromsgrove Labour Group had called for a council tax freeze through a proposed ‘alternative budget’ it put forward.
It estimated £181,000 would be needed and said it would save £100,000 by getting rid of consultants Mott MacDonald, take £18,000 from balances and save £65,000 which Redditch Borough Council charged the authority to use its premises as part of the shared services agreement.
Instead all staff would be based in Bromsgrove or work virtually.
Coun Peter McDonald said: “A council tax freeze is a must with thousands of Bromsgrove residents facing unemployment when furlough ends and struggling now to pay their bills.”
He accused the leading Conservative group of being ‘out of touch’ with the plight and hardship many residents found themselves in.
But the Labour budget was defeated with three voting for it, 22 against and four abstentions.
The Liberal Democrats and two independent groups had teamed up to put forward proposals – outside of the main budget – for the council to invest £1million of its currently unused £1.7million Covid Recovery Grant into local services.
Coun Kate Van Der Plank presented the plan which would spend £433,000 on four new electric shuttle buses to improve public transport in rural areas, £210,000 for two new operatives for park and environment improvements, £190,000 to assist voluntary and community support groups, £65,000 to help museums, libraries and leisure centres get up and running again, £50,000 for a new mental health co-ordinator and £15,000 on CCTV.
Independent Coun Van Der Plank (Independent Group for Bromsgrove East) said: “The Covid grant we received from Government is a once in a lifetime opportunity for this council to make a real difference in our communities, setting us up for success as we come out of this pandemic.
“A small fleet of electric buses serving our town and cut-off villages could really help promote growth.”
Coun Steve Collella (Independent Group for Bromsgrove West and Central) urged members to put aside party differences and vote through the proposal.
And Lib Dem Leader, Coun Rob Hunter added: “With an end to lock-down finally in sight, the time to spend this money is now.
“Our communities are crying out for investment and that is exactly what this grant is for.”
Coun May said the £1.7million was being kept back to help businesses and communities with costs incurred coming out of lockdown and would be channelled to where they were needed as the situations arose.
Coun Adam Kent said the matter of community shuttle buses was in hand.
He added two years worth of work had gone into the demand responsive transport system, as reported last week by the Standard, which would connect the railway station, town centre and residential areas.
Provided the pilot scheme be successful – which he was fully confident it would be – community shuttle buses would be rolled out to other areas, including Alvechurch and Wythall.
They would be used to link outlying villages and rural areas with the town centre, railway stations and other key strategic points so the main public transport routes could then be accessed to places like Birmingham, Worcester and Stratford.
He added it ‘addressed the first and last mile of the journey’ which often put people off using public transport.
The proposals were refused by 20 votes against and eight votes for.
After the budget was passed Coun Denaro labelled it the council’s ‘most ambitious, innovative and fiscally secure budget to date’.
“Demand responsive transport linking the town centre and railway station, shuttle buses linking residential and commercial centres, improvements to parks and green space and electric charges for private/commercial vehicles are just some of the headlines.
“Through careful and thought-out fiscal planning, the council is ready and equipped to help business, create jobs and lift the economy as we move out of the pandemic.”
He said the 2.19 per cent precept increase was much lower than neighbouring authorities, such as Birmingham at five per cent.
“Whilst we hear Labour’s call to freeze tax and use our reserves, it is paramount that the council remains fiscally stable.”
He added if reserves of any council were drained they risked going into special measures, as had happened with several times in the UK with other councils.
“This will not happen to Bromsgrove District Council under our administration.
“The finances of Bromsgrove are secure in the most uncertain times of this pandemic which means, as always, the council is able to support families who have been hit by hardship.
“All residents can look forward to a very prosperous future.”