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Council Rejects Plea to Use Reserves and Spare Residents Pain of Council Tax Hike

Published on: 9 Feb, 2022
Updated on: 12 Feb, 2022

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Surrey’s Conservative-controlled county council has rejected a plea to use some of its £150 million reserves to spend more on public health and spare residents enduring rising living costs a £77 rise in council tax.

The county councillors today (February 8) voted, on party lines, 43 to 31 to approve a 4.99 per cent increase on the current year, meaning a household in a band D property will pay £1,626 a year for county council services from April – an extra £1.48 a week.

How much council tax households will pay for the county council in each band for 2022-23. (ASC = Adult Social Care)

The county council has around £150 million in savings, but calls to spend some were said to be “bordering on irresponsible” in a council meeting today.

Its reserves amount to 14.4 per cent of what it will spend on services in the coming year, while auditors Grant Thornton recommend reserves should be between five and 10 per cent of the net revenue budget.

Cllr Robert Evans

Labour group leader Robert Evans (Stanwell & Stanwell Moor) said: “We could have had a budget presented today with an extra £100 million of spending and still have enough in reserves to cover contingencies.”

Many opposition councillors backed a proposal by Cllr Jonathan Essex (Green, Redhill East) to use about £26 million (17 per cent) of the council’s reserves.

This included an £8 million spend to deliver a child poverty strategy, reverse the reduced number of children’s centres and support preventative health.

‘Our reserves are not excessive, on any view’

Surrey receives the least amount of money per head for public health from the government among comparable authorities.

The amendment would also have guaranteed £17.7 million to extend the county’s bus network without having to rely on the government approving its bid.

It was voted down by 43 members and supported by just 31, with abstentions from Nick Harrison (Nork and Tattenhams Residents’ Association) and Chris Townsend (Ashtead Independent, working with Ashtead Residents).

Cllr Tim Oliver

Council leader Tim Oliver said: “Our reserves are not excessive, on any view. It is something that we need to keep a careful eye on.

“I just don’t think that [the amendment] is acceptable or sensible and indeed at some level is bordering on the irresponsible.”

‘£20 million Godalming property has £4,200 council tax bill’

Cllr Evans said higher council tax bands should have been introduced to make the system fairer and the budget was a “missed opportunity to redistribute”.

He spoke of a £20 million property in Godalming whose disproportionate annual council tax bill is only a little over £4,200.

Liberal Democrat group leader Will Forster (Woking South) said: “Around one in four Surrey households will not be eligible for the government’s proposed council tax rebate [for those in bands A-D].”

“This council is making the cost of living crisis so much worse.”

He accused the Conservatives of making Surrey residents “pay twice” for social care reforms through rises in both council tax rise and National Insurance (NI).

“A lot of that is for the same purpose,” he said, adding: “This council tax rise is partly the result of last year’s rise being cynically deferred until after the election.”

A report from Leigh Whitehouse, executive director of resources, said the council was able to limit the rise last year because of “a number of one-off payments from central government” which they are not expecting to get this year.

On the NI levy he said: “Significant amounts will not be allocated until 2023/24 at the earliest and will come with substantial additional responsibilities.

“There remains a risk that the extra funding provided may not cover the full cost of the additional responsibilities.”

Council tax is paying for almost 80 per cent of Surrey’s £1.042 billion budget.

The council has had to find ways to cut £46.6 million in 2022-23, mainly in social care, on top of £240 million since 2018 when its transformation programme began.

Cllr Fiona White

Cllr Fiona White (LD, Guildford West) said: “Cuts to budget year on year have meant that we long ago stopped getting rid of fat. We are now cutting into the muscle and bone of this authority.

“There is inevitably an impact on the people needing our services.”

Cllr George Potter (LD, Guildford East) went further when addressing councillors: “How dare you sit and claim, no one left behind?

Cllr George Potter

“I will remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that final, absolute, irrevocable and eternal moral judgement waits for us all in the end.

“By your actions you will be judged.”

Residents’ Association and Independent group leader Nick Darby said that rather than making efficiencies the council needed to “be efficient” and “actually deliver”.

Cllr Nick Darby

He accused it of mismanaging taxpayers’ money by overpaying £3.2 million on a new IT system to cover payroll and HR due to “inept project management”.

He said: “This is an inexcusable waste of public money, wholly avoidable with proper planning and competent implementation.”

Cllr Nick Harrison (Nork and Tattenhams Residents’ Association) said the Eco Park, Shepperton’s waste management plant, was “an important risk which overhangs this entire budget”.

He said: “We started this in 1999. We’ve received £137m in credits so far.

“If we don’t deliver, we’re liable to repay some or the entire PFI grant received to date.”

‘We’re going to make Surrey a better place’

Cllr Oliver said they had no choice but to raise council tax, as the average cost of supporting an older person had increased by 13 per cent compared with before the pandemic.

He said: “We’re determined to do right by all generations. To provide dignity and a better quality of life.

“A rise in the adult social care precept is unavoidable if we want to deliver this ambition.”

About 60 per cent of the increased amount will go on adult social care and the rest on mental health prevention and early intervention, as well as the increased cost of delivering services due to inflation and the living wage.

Cllr Oliver said: “We could shirk our responsibility, put our head in the sand and muddle along hoping for government money that will not come.

But we’re not going to that.“We are going to stand up, roll up our sleeves and not only tackle those challenges – we’re going to make the best of them.

“We’re going to make Surrey a better place. And we’re going to make sure no one is left behind.”

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