Council tax bills in Cornwall will go up by an average £112.50 a year after Cornwall Council approved its budget proposals. But whilst the Conservative administration highlighted its balanced budget opposition councillors said that raising council tax by the maximum amount would impact struggling families.
Under the budget for 2023/24 the council is raising its share of council tax by 4.99% – the maxim allowed by the Government without the need for a referendum. The increase includes a general increase of 2.99% and a 2% levy which will be used to fund adult social care.
The decision means that an average B and D property will be paying £112.50 more in their council tax this year. Total average bills for a Band D property will be £2,221.39 which includes £1,802.79 for Cornwall Council; £261.56 for Devon and Cornwall Police; and £157.04, the average charge for town and parish councils in Cornwall.
In a long, and at times, heated debate in the chamber at New County Hall councillors locked horns over the budget plans which require the council to make more than £55million of savings in the next year. Several opposition councillors criticised plans to increase the amount of money the council is placing in reserves with the general fund reserve set to increase to £43m in 2023/24.
However, Deputy Leader David Harris said that the level of general reserve was set by the council’s chief finance officer and said that in the last year the amount of reserve needed last year had been used.
On the decision to raise council tax by 4.99% Cllr Harris said: “This recommendation is not made lightly given the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, but is being made in order to ensure that vital services to residents are protected. To not increase council tax by the maximum amount allowed by Government would reduce our spending power in next and future years. We will of course continue to heavily promote and signpost those residents worried about money to the support and financial assistance offered by the council and other organisations.”
Cllr Harris added: “One last point to address a few comments I have heard outside here such as how can they find £50 million to spend on a Mid-Cornwall Metro but still stuff our council tax up by the max. The simple answer to this is that the Mid Cornwall Metro, shared prosperity funds are all capital gifts from Central Government which come on almost a ‘use it or lose it’ basis but must be spent on specific types of projects all of which in general terms will encourage growth in Cornwall.
“I could only wish that some of these monies were revenue monies to be spent on our day-to-day activities…it might stop me moaning about a need for levelling up in terms of revenue grants where we know that on a relative basis we are a long way behind.”
Independent councillor Julian German said: “Under this Conservative leadership we have had the biggest cash increases in council tax for two years running.
“Whilst the Conservative government are expressing concerns about the £11bn increase in local government reserves over the last two years, and Ministers are pondering what action to take, this council’s leadership, rather than protecting services or lowering council tax, are increasing reserves to record levels.”
He added: “Rather than Conservatives looking after the public pound and keeping costs down, the council’s leadership want to maximise council tax for the sake of putting money into reserves.”
Responding for the Liberal Democrats acting group leader Colin Martin said: “Cllr Harris has said that the budget gap has been closed, but really this is achieved by yet another 5% increase in council tax, increasing fees and charges, cutting services and taking away free peak time travel for concessionary bus pass holders.”
He added: “Some of you are going to stand up and say ‘Cllr Martin is being political’. Yes, I am. That’s my job, and it’s your job too. I know that many of you are decent, hard-working local representatives, but when you serve under the banner of a political party, you are also a politician.
“The Conservative Government has left Cornwall Council without the money it needs. The Conservative Cabinet has left Cornwall’s residents without the services upon which they depend. And as long as you continue to wear the Conservative label, you have to take personal responsibility for the actions of your political leaders. It’s time for the Council to be led by someone who will be Cornwall’s voice in Whitehall, not Whitehall’s voice in Cornwall.”
Andrew Long, Mebyon Kernow councillor, said that council tax was “the most insidious form of taxation which impacts most the less well off” and said it was “shameful” that the Conservative administration was not doing more to address funding for services in Cornwall.
He added: “We will be voting against this budget and will continue to campaign for fairer funding for public services in Cornwall and proper reform for how local government is funded.”
Labour group leader Jayne Kirkham said that “services are being cut” but that council tax, costs and charges were all going up. She also highlighted that town and parish councils were having to raise their council tax to pay for services that they have had to take on from Cornwall Council to prevent them being lost, such as libraries, parks and public toilets.
She added that the Government had cut funding for local councils and that local people were having to continue to pay more in council tax which she said was a “regressive, unfair tax”. And she highlighted that whilst more money was being put into adult social care there was still a need for the service to make savings of more than £22m.
Mebyon Kernow councillor Michael Bunney said he was “incredibly uncomfortable” with the maximum rise in council tax proposed which he said would be “deeply unpopular” among people in Cornwall. He said that retired people and “hard working families” would struggle to pay the higher bills.
Several councillors raised concerns about plans to increase car parking charges in Cornwall and the impact the move could have on town centres and people who work in town centres. There were also concerns that the council had included projected income from car parking charges in the budget plans despite no decision having been made on whether to adopt the new parking tariffs.
Several Conservative councillors criticised opposition councillors for making comments against the budget plans but not offering any alternative proposals.
When put to the vote the budget and medium term financial plans for the council including the decision to raise Cornwall Council’s share of council tax by 4.99% were approved with 45 votes in favour and 34 against.