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Wokingham borough councillors prepare to vote on planned council tax rise tonight

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Picture: Frauke Feind from Pixabay

RESIDENTS could see their council tax bills rise by 4.99% if the budget is approved at a special meeting tonight.

Wokingham Borough Council’s rise will be 1.99% – the maximum permitted without a local referendum – plus a 3% top-up for adult social care.

There will also be rises in parish and town council precepts, an extra £15 a year for police. The fire brigade was due to vote on a £1.35 per year increase after we went to press.

This means that a Woodley resident living in a Band D property would face a council tax of £2,040.02 from April this year. The cheapest parish would be Swallowfield, which would be £1,944.38.

Acknowledging that the financial situation caused by covid meant that many residents face hardship, the executive member for finance on Wokingham Borough Council, Cllr John Kaiser, said that the increase was necessary.

“What’s the alternative? It’s quite stark. The alternative is you cut services, and who do you serve by cutting services? Who does that affect the most?

“There is no magic money tree. I cannot see any alternative other than slashing services or doing prudent investments.”

He added: “It’s a public purse and we need to be mindful of that. But I’m pretty tenacious with regards to how much we spend.”

Cllr Kaiser said that the council’s investments, which in recent years have seen their buy Waitrose stores in Woodley and Twyford, as well as regenerating Wokingham’s town centre, are paying off, with houses in the regeneration selling “pretty well”.

He felt that the council’s debt levels would be paid off within a decade and the plan that the council will vote on reflects that. The £700 million debt figure mentioned by the opposition is, he said, funding for the council’s capital expenditure programme, some of which was not debt but used to accelerate projects, such as road building, where the money would come from payments made by property developers. This is known as CIL or Section 106 funding and is triggered by the number of homes built.

“The Lib Dems have got confused with our debt and funding requirement. They are two different things,” he said.

“If you look at the maximum that we’re borrowing externally, it’s probably about £400 million, but we’ve put £170 million of our own money into that as well.

“We also normally only deliver around 60% of our capital programme, not because we’re inefficient but for operational reasons, such as a shortage of materials, or workmen.”

And the council’s Chief Financial Officer, Graham Ebers, said that the council’s commercial investments help keep council tax levels down, giving a benefit in the next financial year of £13.64 per Band D property, rising to £62.86 in 2023/24.

“The income generated through these investments exceeds the costs of all the borrowing we do,” he said.

Council leader Cllr John Halsall said that the budget was balanced.

“Our town centre is now generating a huge income for ring fenced funds, which is being paid off.

“Wokingham has really bucked the trend and the borough is also bucking the trend.

“Our neighbours are cutting back services, doing all sorts of things. We still have weekly collections of rubbish and intend to continue doing so.

“We have a balanced budget, we’ve got a huge investments programme, particularly in roads and transport – we’re investing £160 million in housing, which includes Gorse Ride, and £71 million for climate emergency.

“There’s £23 million for the refurbishment of leisure facilities including Carnival Pool.

“There are several new schools, a special educational needs facility in Winnersh, a new dementia home, a learning disability response centre and supported living accommodation.

“It’s a progressive budget looking after the needs of our residents with no cutback in services at all.”

And the reason for this, he said, was because “We have got strong and sound financial management. We have been able to step up to the community during the covid crisis and now have a progressive budget.”

He added: “I would argue with any statement that we have rubbish services because we have very, very good services.

“We’re not seeking to cut back services. We’re seeking to develop our localities team into forward facing service for environmental health and licensing so that every resident feels supported in terms of domestic nuisances.

“We recognise that every residents’ quality of life is determined by the immediate environment.

“The borough’s job is to weave a golden thread throughout our communities, and we have a job to make that as good as possible.”

Lib Dem leader Cllr Lindsay Ferris said that it was a Conservative budget and, as such, it would get passed as they had the majority on the council.

“If there’s a change in control (to us) at the May elections, we would have to live with it, but we don’t agree with all aspects of it,” he said.

“The 3% rise on adult social services means that 9% of council tax is paying for this. This is not something we should be carrying on, it’s not viable in the medium or long term.”

On the council’s debt levels, he said that it was a nonsense to suggest that it would “magically disappear” in March 2024, adding that the uncertainty caused by the pandemic meant that the council couldn’t rely on this.

“The council has to earn more and more money each year just to stand still. We are concerned as while borrowing at the moment is very cheap, it’s not always going to be. Interest rates will go back to a more regular level at some point. At 1% if you borrow £100 million you only pay £1 million. At 4%, it’s £4 million.

“We’ve done our sums. They are mortgaging the council and the figures for borrowing in the future are absolutely astronomical.”

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