Friday, 11 January 2008

Town Council and Council Tax

On Weds (16th) the Town Council will consider a recommendation from its Finance Committee to raise its share of the Council Tax by 3.0% next year. That represents an increase from £83.14 to around £84.60 on Band D – that’s around £2.50 per year.

The story isn’t quite a simple as that though. The Finance Committee and Town Council staff have been working on next year’s budget since October and on Thurs 3rd January, the Finance Committee unanimously agreed to recommend a Council Tax increase of 5.0% - round about £4.10 per year on Band D.
Unfortunately – on the Monday – NCC decided to go with a council tax rise of 1.8% (see previous post), and the indications are that CMBC will also be going for a council tax rise under 2%. So, the Finance Committee’s recommendation was discussed informally with other town councillors.
(I won’t say it was a party group meeting, because (fortunately) Morpeth Town Council doesn’t operate formal party groups – but 13 of the 15 town councillors are LibDems, and neither I nor Derek Thompson were party to these informal discussions.)
Anyway – the upshot was that it was considered a bad thing for the reputation of the Town Council to be seen to increase council tax by 5% when other councils were proposing increases of under 2%, so the Chair of the Finance Committee was asked informally to reconsider the recommendation and come up with a lower percentage increase. (After all – we wouldn’t want the embarrassment of having an argument out in the open at Full Council, with the possibility of the Finance Committee recommendation being voted down would we.)

So – an emergency Finance Committee meeting was called on Weds 9th (so quick, there was no time to notify the press or public) to look at budget cuts that could reduce the council tax rise to 3%. This represents all of £1.60 a year on Band D, total £4,100 off the Town Council budget – but consider these cuts in those image-sensitive percentage terms:

Repairs & Renewals 5.6% (£1,000) cut
Town Plan 20% (£1,000) cut
Grant to Greater Morpeth Development Trust 20% (£1,000) cut
Tree Planting 48.5% (£500) cut
Training & Conferences 48.8% (£600) cut
And since the Town Council’s share of the council tax bill is under 6% - the difference between a 5.0% increase and a 3.0% increase will be just 0.12% on the overall council tax bill.

As far as I’m concerned the Town Council does a brilliant job in supporting the character and vitality of Morpeth and its well worth an extra £1.60 a year – and the feedback I around town get generally supports this. This whole episode suggests to me a lack of confidence and political leadership, and an over-concern for spin and image.

This coming year, the Town Council will need to be staking a claim on Morpeth assets during the local government re-organisation. This debacle over budget-setting does not fill me with confidence!

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