COUNCIL tax in Wokingham borough will go up by 3.49 per cent after councillors voted to approve Wokingham Borough Council’s (WBC) budget Thursday (February 22) evening.

This means a band D taxpayer will pay up to £49 more a year.

The authority’s financial plans were approved following more than two hours of debate between councillors, with leader councillor Julian McGhee-Sumner starting proceedings by outlining WBC’s financial position.

He said: “As most of us in this chamber will know we have been the worst-funded authority in the country for a considerable number of years.

“It is useful to put our funding into context – the average authority has seen a reduction in RSG (revenue support grant - the funding the authority gets from government for running day-to-day services) of 41.28 per cent, however in Wokingham, we have seen a reduction of 100 per cent.

“Council tax now accounts for 100 per cent towards the calculation of our spending power. It is therefore vital that we continue to see a healthy income from council tax and we are fortunate then, that we have a strong base and that we have efficient officers whose collection rate of 98.85 per cent is one of the highest in the country.”

The leader went on to outline how the council’s budget will impact on various services provided by the council.

He told members that it is “vital” that the council “continues to spend the limited resources we have wisely. We must look after those who need our services the most whilst protecting future generations who will need this council to help and support them in the future.”

Budget documents show the council expects to spend an extra £2.8m in adult social services due to increases in care packages, the general increase in the cost of the services offered by the authority and due to more vulnerable young people transitioning into adult care.

Another £1.1m is set to be spent on children’s social workers too.

The council is set to spend £500m on infrastructure, regeneration and its commercial asset investment portfolio, which the leader said he hoped will produce income which will repay any borrowing costs.

Speaking about the authority’s regeneration project, he added: “Residents told us in no uncertain that the town centre was dying and that more needed to be done if we were to have a thriving town centre and night time economy”.

Earlier this month the council announced that Blue Orchid Bakery, Beyond the Download, Sit and Sip will be joining Gail’s Bakery, Waterstones, Cook! And The Leafy Elephant at the new Peach Place shopping units.

A further seven new names are expected to be announced soon with fashion retailers anticipated to be joining the other stores.

Cllr McGhee-Sumner added: “Whilst there are still residents who are unhappy to see the regeneration, many residents are actually pleased that the council has undertaken this work at a time when other towns are declining”.

The leader also spoke about the council’s 21-century online service approach, managing its leisure centres, waste and community hubs.

Before the budget was approved by councillors, leader of the opposition, Liberal Democrats councillor Lindsay Ferris, was given the opportunity to share his thoughts on the budget plans.

He said: “I have been asked recently how we would run the council differently if we were given that chance. After a short period of reflection, I said ‘we would run the council for the benefit of our residents, not for the benefit of the council or developers’.

"In our view, this council has increasingly become a ‘we know best and dismissive’ organisation with many residents, whether petitioners or anyone who dares to question their actions being brushed aside and ignored or given near meaningless answers. Such arrogance.”

Cllr Ferris also outlined his concerns regarding the number of houses being built in the borough, adding that the Lib Dems have submitted a petition to the government campaigning to keep development down.

The opposition leader alerted councillors to “the rapidly rising level of debt being incurred as the council borrows more” and raised fears about the impact of this on the council’s services, adding: “If at any point the costs of any new infrastructure plus the costs of borrowing outstrips the council income, then our services will be decimated.

“We, as residents, would end up paying ever-increasing levels of council tax for an ever decreasing level of service. This is what creates a perfect storm.”

The Lib Dems proposed an alternative budget which included changes to the council’s revenue and capital budgets.

Major proposals included reducing spending on temporary staff by £500,000, with an extra expenditure of £300,000 for children’s services, re-introducing school crossing patrollers at £50,000 and providing 2 hours free parking at council car parks on Saturdays at a cost to the council of £240,000.

A further £38,000 was proposed to restore Healthwatch Wokingham Borough’s funding.

Almost £1m was proposed for additional capital investments, with Lib Dems suggesting £15,000 for a disabled van space in the town centre to pick disabled residents up, library facilities in Twyford (£400,000), investment in roads and pavements (£300,000) and £200,000 for housing via Loddon Housing Limited.

In response, Cllr Anthony Pollock, executive member for finance, said Cllr Ferris’ budget proposals were “interesting but not helpful” and added that borrowing and its costs were “not a problem”.

Conservative councillor Norman Jorgensen also suggested Cllr Ferris’ alternative budget was “extremely imprudent”, and Tory members Chris Smith and Keith Baker laid into the Lib Dem proposals, with the latter slamming the free car-parking proposal as a “nonsense” as most car parks across the borough were already very busy.

Cllr Baker claimed it was “easy” for the Lib Dems to make “grandiose” statements when they don’t have to implement them, attacking the ease of putting numbers on a piece of paper.

Labour councillor Andy Croy also attacked the Liberal Democrats’ alternative budget, suggesting the group took Labour’s idea to re-introduce school crossing patrollers and that their budget was “not a serious proposal”, but was instead a “stunt”.

The Leader of the council echoed Cllr Croy’s “stunt” comments before a vote saw the Lib Dems’ amendment fall after Conservative members voted against it and Labour councillors abstained.

Discussions turned back to the initially proposed Conservative budget after the Lib Dems’ alternatives fell.

Cllr Rachel Burgess attacked the Conservative government’s austerity programme and its effect on the council’s budget for “wreaking havoc on our communities”.

Her colleague Labour councillor Carl Doran added: “I recognise this council have very little room for manoeuvre” and also claimed the council’s medium-term financial plan indicated that the end of austerity” isn’t even on the horizon”, before pleading with Conservative councillors to use “any influence” they have on borough MP and Prime Minister Theresa May for more money.

Cllr Pauline Helliar-Symons spoke about the impact of the budget on children’s services. She said: “I am continuing to work with officers to obtain the best value for money in all our children’s services. I make no apology for the growth because we are protecting more children.”

Executive member for health, wellbeing and adult social care Cllr Parry Batth also said: “I am pleased to announce an additional £1m in the budget to meet extra demand in adult social care in order to improve our services.

“The director of adult services and I have set up an improvement board”. This board will identify opportunities to make improvements to the cost-effectiveness of the current services.”

But Labour councillor Andy Croy claimed that the council was in its “predicament” because the national “Tory party hates local government”, before adding “very soon we will exist only to provide statutory services.”

Before the vote on the budget, Cllr Pollock urged councillors to vote on it as he said it was a “sound and prudent” financial plan.

Four different budget documents were passed after all Conservative councillors present and independent Richard Dolinski voted in favour of the council’s medium-term financial plan, with Labour councillors Burgess, Croy, Doran and Liberal Democrats councillors Ferris, Hare, Jones, Kerr, Pittock, Imogen Shepherd-DuBey and Rachelle Shepherd-DuBey, as well as independent Gary Cowan, voting against.

Councillors met to debate the budget plans on Thursday, February 22.