Conservative bid to freeze council tax in Bedford rejected

A freeze would result in service cuts, Lib Dems said
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A call from the Conservative group to freeze Bedford Borough Council tax was rejected by councillors last night (Wednesday, February 2).

The Conservatives said it would be wrong to increase tax amid 'significant pressures' on family budgets.

But Labour and Lib Dem councillors said the move was a 'distraction' designed to make the Conservative party look like 'the good guys' - and would result in service cuts.

Bedford Borough HallBedford Borough Hall
Bedford Borough Hall

The proposed General Fund Revenue Budget for 2022/23 included a core council tax rise of 1.99 per cent. This is separate to the two per cent Adult Social Care Precept rise.

Conservative Group leader, councillor Graeme Coombes (Wilshamstead Ward) told the full council meeting: "We may discuss the financial pressures for local government, but councillors cannot have failed to notice the pressures on family budgets too," he said.

"We therefore believe it would be wrong when families and individuals experience such significant pressures on their household budgets to increase council tax merely to top up the council's reserves as is proposed in the budget.

"We would like to freeze the council tax this year, core council tax, meaning zero increase, separate from the adult services precept.

"The council has got a £3.8 million windfall this year as a result of the estimated collected council tax surplus, thanks to much lower rates of anticipated unemployment, something which I'm sure we're all grateful for, we all want to see our residents in jobs.

"Rather than putting £1.94 million into reserves next year as is proposed, we would use it to fund a council tax freeze for Bedford residents.

"The remaining £62,000 needed would come from the general fund. The £1.94 million is money that Bedford residents have already paid, and I'm sure they would rather it went to go to fund important local services rather than sitting in the council's reserves.

"This amendment requires no cuts to council services and would reduce Band D bills by just over £32 per year, a small amount, but better off in the pockets of the people rather than hoarding in our reserves," he said.

The portfolio holder for finance, councillor Michael Headley (LibDems, Putnoe Ward) asked councillor Coombes: "Could you list, this is for the benefit of local residents as much as anything, could you list the two million pounds of extra cuts you're proposing to make in next year's budget to balance next year’s budget having taken this action?"

Councillor Coombes replied: "There are no cuts to be made, I'm talking about this year's budget, councillor Headley, the money that you're getting from the £3.8 million windfall that you are going to put in the reserves for next year, there are no cuts to be made for next year's budget."

Labour Group leader, councillor Sue Oliver (Kempston North Ward) said her group would not be supporting the amendment.

"I think what you're doing is following the lead of your national Conservative government in trying to distract residents," she said.

"You're trying to look like the good guys by proposing no increase in cash tax to cover up the fact that your government kindly allows local authorities to charge those same hard-pressed residents for adult social care, so that they get the blame, or we get the blame, for something that central government should have sorted out long enough since."

Councillor Coombes said: "I think what we are proposing is fair and honest, madam speaker, we are saying that we should not be putting money into reserves when we could actually be helping hard-pressed people.

"I think what we are proposing is right, it is proper, it is prudent, it is directed specifically to freeze council tax and ensure that people do not see further increases in their bills when they are not necessary and the council is able to gather enough revenue from the public without actually increasing the council tax," he said.

Councillor Headley said: "You should be honest with local people that what you're proposing is an extra two million pounds of cuts to vital services in a year's time.

"I suggest that local residents can see through party political one-off points scoring and they can see our record since 2009 in running an efficient council that keeps council tax down and protects vital front line services.

"You cannot run a council by muddling through one year at a time just balancing the books for that instant, that is the road to disaster.

"By planning ahead, we've been able to protect vital front line services and keep council tax rises as one of the lowest unity councils in the country.

"We are not going to throw that away those benefits now, benefits for local residents and local taxpayers, and we're not going to support an extra 2 million pounds worth of cuts next year," he said.

The amendment was lost.