Fenland Council puts a three per cent rise in council tax on the agenda but finds few, including the leader, have the heart for it

PUBLISHED: 22:48 22 February 2018 | UPDATED: 22:48 22 February 2018

First official day as leader for Chris Seaton. He steered the council to its council tax decision in a slightly convoluted way:  Photo: Harry Rutter

First official day as leader for Chris Seaton. He steered the council to its council tax decision in a slightly convoluted way: Photo: Harry Rutter

Archant

It was one of the oddest budget debates of recent times as Fenland Council couldn’t quite find the heart to deliver up a threatened three per cent rise in council tax.

From left: Wisbech councillors Sam Hoy, Steve Tierney and Garry Tibbs at today's budget setting council meeting of FDC - 22/02/2018 Photo: Harry RutterFrom left: Wisbech councillors Sam Hoy, Steve Tierney and Garry Tibbs at today's budget setting council meeting of FDC - 22/02/2018 Photo: Harry Rutter

Instead they opted today for 1.97 per cent, effectively quashing officers’ hopes of an extra £75,000 to spend this and every other year to come.

The blame, if any, for procrastinating until the last moment (they beat a print deadline for new tax demands by 24 hours) turned out to be a mix of officers’ aspirations and the change of leadership from John Clark to Chris Seaton.

No sooner had Cllr Seaton proposed the council tax resolution for a 2.96 per cent rise then up popped Councillor Sam Hoy – with an amendment scripted by Cllr Seaton – for a rise of 1.97 per cent rise.

And it was that increase that was carried fairly unanimously with only Councillor Will Sutton abstaining together with Councillors Virginia and Michael Bucknor.

New FDC leader Chris Seaton at the council meeting in March - 22/02/2018 Photo: Harry RutterNew FDC leader Chris Seaton at the council meeting in March - 22/02/2018 Photo: Harry Rutter

What it will mean is that Fenland Council will now raid its reserves to plug the £75,000 shortfall.

Cllr Seaton explained that less cash from the Government and the need to help prop up shortfalls in a pension scheme for river pilots meant the budget “continues to be under pressure”.

But he said it was up to council as a whole to recommend what rise to go for as the ruling Conservative group had decided this year’s council tax increase would be a free vote.

“Thought I see merits in 1.97 per cent there are also important arguments for a modest contribution from reserves this year but not in subsequent years,” he said.

Cost reductions, he warned, would be needed in years to come.

“My colleague Sam Hoy at my request has offered to put a motion for the alternative,” he said.

Cllr Hoy said: “I feel we should not put it up more than we should have to.”

She felt it could be difficult going to voters and explaining why the extra was needed at this time.

Councillor Virginia Bucknor warned that if the council agreed the lower rise “there will be a shortfall of just under £300,000 next year.

“So when we vote that means there is going to be huge shortfall not coming out of reserves next year - this money has to come from somewhere.”

Lib Dem Councillor Gavin Booth said the medium term forecasts had always said two per cent and the authority had a balanced budget and queried the need to raise it by a further one per cent.

Councillor Steve Tierney thought it could be an issue trying to explain to taxpayers what the council wanted to do with the extra money if the three per cent was approved.

“I don’t think the argument has been made clearly enough” he said.

In the greater scheme of things, he argued, one per cent was not a great deal “but an extra penny is an extra penny”.

Councillors had been told that for the first time in a while the Government had allowed them to go above two per cent: until now they would have needed a local referendum to go above two per cent.

However with inflation at three per cent rather than the former level of two per cent., the Government had raised the referendum threshold from two to three per cent.

Finance chiefs at Fenland Hall said that the lower increase of 1.97 per cent results in higher shortfalls and in turn this suggests that larger savings would be needed in each year to bring the budget into balance.

Councillor Will Sutton explained after the meeting that he had abstained since he favoured a zero increase.

However other councillors present at a private Conservative group meeting when council tax was discussed insisted he had all along been an advocate of the three per cent rise.

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