Cllr Louisson, Portfolio Holder for Finance, introduced the budget and took the opportunity to thank the work of officers during the past year and congratulate the S151 Officer and Finance Team in respect of the proposed budget which would deliver over £4m of targeted investment.
The budget had been built to support and deliver the corporate and supporting strategies, whilst also realising £788k of cost savings identified through the various budget challenge sessions with services.
In terms of Government funding, a further £1m would allow the Supporting Communities Fund to continue to 2025, a new £1m fund to support the delivery of the new Digital Strategy, a further £250k towards the Climate Fund, a further £1.25m to the Property Investment Fund and £1.31 for the Financial Stability Reserve.
A 2% Council Tax increase was proposed, which represented £2.68 per annum for a Band D property.
He believed that the budget demonstrated a commitment to supporting communities, investing in the regeneration of towns in the district, maintaining council assets and taking a lead on environmental issues.
Cllr Hunt delivered the speech on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Group. He thanked Cllr Louisson for the proposed budget but highlighted that many families were struggling in terms of their wellbeing and finances. Businesses had also suffered, and he thanked the council for the speed with which the Council had administered the various covid grants.
He referred to the amendments submitted by the Liberal Democrat Group, which sought to financially recompense town and parish councils which had supported residents and businesses during the pandemic. The amendments also aimed to reinvigorate footfall in town centres via a 30-minute free parking initiative and support the climate agenda with the appointment of a Climate Assistant to assist the Climate and Environment Lead.
Cllr Louisson thanked Cllr Hunt for his speech and in respect of town and parish councils believed that a number had very substantial reserves and were therefore well placed to withstand the hardship. In respect of Councl Tax, did enhance the scheme by more than would usually be required to take into account the hardships experienced.
Cllr Langley spoke on behalf of the Labour Group and thanked officers for their hard work during the year. She was thankful for the positive working relationship that the group had with the ruling party. She believed that the Council was doing the best that it could with what it had; however she did not believe that what it had was enough. Many residents continued to face hardship and rely upon charity. She didn’t believe that anybody should be worried about food, heat or shelter and that local government should be sufficiently funded to allow it to put forward a budget that put people and public services first to address poverty, debt, low wages and housing. She encouraged the Conservative group to lobby central government to guarantee funding for council services to ensure those most in need were supported.
In response to the budget speeches the Leader explained that the majority of the issues raised by the Labour Group were governed by government policy. He was proud of the organisation’s response to Covid-19 and the budget put forward to help mitigate these issues.
In respect of town centres, he believed that their viability was often affected by Government Business Rates and he felt that this needed to be addressed nationally. Welfare was fundamental to the Council’s strategy and would continue to grow and improve using the adopted evidence-based approach.
With regard to the proposal for additional support to town and parish councils he noted that the vast majority had not increased their precept by much. He believed that this demonstrated that their prudent financial planning protected them during the past year.
The Leader welcomed discussion with the opposition groups in respect of their policy ideas during the coming year, which could potentially be used to inform the 2021/22 Budget.
In response to questions from Cllr Maroney it was confirmed that:
· the increase in Section 31 grant was to compensate the collection account for the release given for the retail hospitality and leisure grants. Councils were not entitled to retain any unallocated grant, which were paid back to central government. As EHDC paid above and beyond the original allocation it received a top up from central government;
· the Section 31 Grant and New Homes Bonus had been allocated to the various different reserves for use during the year against projects that the Council wished to support.
It was agreed that the answer to Cllr Maroney’s third question below be provided in writing:
“Why aren’t the Business Performance Updates for FY20-21 and Business Plan for 2021-24 that were presented to the Cabinet Shareholder Sub-committee in exempt session on 4th February 2021 included in this budget. The public and backbenchers have no idea what the real costs of running the council have been during Covid-19.”