Bitter row as council tax rise for Cambridgeshire residents agreed

Cambridgeshire residents will have to pay 3.59 per cent more in council tax to the county council next year.

Wednesday, 12th February 2020, 9:50 am

Cambridgeshire County Council’s share of the bill was agreed as part of the authority’s annual budget for 2020/21 on Tuesday.

The change in council tax includes two per cent specifically to fund adult social care, an increase which council budget plans show is assumed to continue for at least a further five years.

The change in council tax was put forward in an amendment by the Conservative administration and opposed by the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups who instead argued for the maximum increase allowed without holding a confirmatory referendum – 3.99 per cent.

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Council tax is set to increase for residents

The approved change will add £47.07 for the year to the average property (Band D), seeing the cost owed to the council rise from £1,312.11 to £1,359.18.

Council tax also goes towards district authorities, the police and fire service. The office of the police and crime commissioner has increased its council tax share by 4.5 per cent for this year, and the fire authority has increased its share by 1.91 per cent.

The county council’s budget for the year will be £612 million, excluding grants for schools.

According to the budget report: “The costs of running the council have risen by £40 million (7 per cent) as compared to 2019/20. This is primarily due to inflationary and demand pressures across service areas generally but especially in respect of adult and children’s social care provision.”

The council has agreed to make £22.4 million in savings and increased income next year.

The leader of the Lib Dem opposition on the county council, Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, said the Conservatives’ budget “plumbed new depths of cynicism and misinformation”.

She said putting the council tax up by the full amount (3.99 per cent instead of proposed 3.59 per cent) would cost an additional 11p a week for an average home, but combined would add £1.17 million a year for services which she said “would make a difference”.

Leader of the council, Conservative Cllr Steve Count, hit out at the “automatic” position of the Liberal Democrats and Labour to put up council tax by the maximum, and branded it “tax and spend”.

“We start the other way round,” he said, saying his party asks “what do we absolutely need to deliver for the benefit and what our residents want?”

Responding to the Liberal Democrat proposals, he said: “I have heard mention that it is only 11p a week for some people. I hate that word only. I really find that disgraceful, that anyone in this chamber should use the word only when actually taking the money off somebody else by a legal power of force.”

He said the Conservatives have saved £75 a year per household since taking control of the council in 2017.

Cllr Count said that since then the council has made £101 million in savings. He said: “The opposition would have you believe that we have decimated services to achieve this, but there could be nothing further from the truth.”

He said adult social care is being delivered “with one of the lowest unit costs per head”. And he said the council has expanded library services, increased training in staff and was making investments in the community and to fight climate change.

Cllr Nethsingha said the Conservatives have “decimated the level of service across this council”. She said “the level of service available on every level is significantly lower than it was 10 years ago”.

She added that central government cuts meant whoever was in charge over the past 10 years would have faced “very difficult decisions,” but said “this administration has chosen to make those cuts deeper and harder than was necessary, at every stage, and you should be ashamed of yourselves”.

Referencing recent increases in charges for adult social care, she said the council had chosen to “increase charges for the disabled, making the financial hardship of the council the reason for doing so, and at the same time the Conservative administration is choosing not to tackle this financial pressure when setting the council tax”.

Cllr Count said the decision to increase social care charges was “one of the hardest decisions we had to make” but said it was based on national guidance and “puts us in line with the vast majority of councils”. And he said the fact the council was able to “put off that decision for so long” was down to his party’s budgeting.

Labour’s Cllr Jocelynne Scutt said the Conservatives should not applaud £101 million in savings, instead calling it “£101 million in cuts”. She called the Conservatives budget plans a “disgrace”.

“It is cuts. It is gouging. It is slashing,” she said, adding people were “not just suffering from it – they’re bleeding”.

Cllr Count said the “majority” of the £101 million in savings were not cuts and praised the level of service the council offers.

Lib Dem Cllr Lorna Dupre said “the cumulative cost” of the Conservatives decision not to put up council tax by the government maximum level is “massive”. She said between 2016 and 2019 “this council forfeited a total of £34 million which could have been spent on services”.

Cllr Count dismissed both budget solutions from the opposition, labelling Labour’s “childish,” arguing it does not sustainably balance the budget, and saying the Liberal Democrat amendment did not match his own party’s plans for spending on tackling climate change, as well as criticising their plans to raise council tax by 3.99 per cent.

Cllr Count said the council had “done the right thing” and praised what he described as the achievements of his administration, and several Conservative councillors addressed the meeting to say they were proud of the budget.

Speaking after the meeting and responding to criticisms of “cuts” to adult social care, Cllr Count said funding would increase in real cash terms for the service next year, but so would demand.

Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporting Service