5th Dec, 2016

Coventry Council Tax doubles as budget means you pay more for less

Les Reid 24th Feb, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

COUNCIL Tax rises are to double in Coventry after Labour councillors pushed through their latest cuts Budget – which means you’ll again pay more for less this year.

Finance cabinet member Damian Gannon’s Budget approved by Tuesday’s full council meeting includes a 3.9 per cent inflation-busting Council Tax increase from April; cuts to library and children’s services; more council job losses; and the closure approved last year of the original cathedral’s remains at the Priory Visitor Centre unless volunteers step in.

Coun Gannon claimed the halving of government funding to the council since 2010 was designed to “weaken and undermine local government”.

He added the council’s financial situation had become “desperate”, and the council was now having to refinance its borrowing.

The move, he said, would cut its interest payments to free up some cash to protect services to the most vulnerable, but would see “future generations” having to pay down the council’s debts.

Tory councillor Tim Sawdon hit back, taunting his opponents by saying “welcome to reality” when Labour councillors said ‘you cannot spend what you haven’t got’.

Coun Gannon’s monotone speech, entirely blaming the Conservatives in government, was “repetitive balderdash” and was “almost the same speech as last year’s speech, which was the same as the previous year’s,” said Coun Sawdon.

Conservative ministers including Nuneaon MP Marcus Jones last week claimed Coventry council could double its income from Business Rates by 2020 from a currently predicted £119million – when councils will be able to retain 100 per cent rather 49 per cent of the rates they collect from businesses.

Coun Sawdon added the government had “given local government what it asked for” this year, making £2.3million more than expected available for Coventry council’s £230million budget, and allowing it to raise Council Tax by an additional 2 per cent to 3.9 per cent to help fund adult social care.

Labour councillors say the financial demands of care for ‘at risk’ children and the elderly amid a rising population continue to contribute to a £16million overspend combined. Coventry’s children’s department has been rated ‘inadequate’ with ongoing high numbers of children in care and being allocated Child Protection Plans.

Tory councillor Marcus Lapsa accused Labour’s Steven Thomas of “smears” after a melodramatic and vitriolic speech, in which he attacked the Tories and defended mobile library cuts.

Conservative councillors had tabled alternative Budget proposals of retaining mobile libraries and the Priory Visitor Centre, by cutting the trade union budget and not going ahead with Coventry’s £500,000 annual spend for setting up the controversial West Midlands Combined Authority.

The Tories claimed cutting mobile libraries – in addition to library closures at existing buildings at Arena Park and Willenhall and axing two children’s play centres – would harm the 65 per cent of mobile library users who are children.

Council leader Ann Lucas and other Labour councillors – who have for years spoken of the importance of retaining around 18 libraries and mobile services –  instead extolled the virtues of a new “partnership” with charity Age UK, which is already delivering library books to the elderly.

The Budget is also propped up by income from the government’s New Homes Bonus as a reward for building new homes, amid controversial plans to build on 10 per cent of Green Belt with the city’s population rising.

The council’s largest union Unison had urged the use of reserves to stave off cuts in services, while joining other councils in fighting government cuts. But Coun Gannon claimed the council’s auditors had concluded unallocated reserves of cash was acceptable.

Labour councillors continued to state as fact that Coventry would gain £150million for city centre redevelopment and £36million combined extra from joining the West Midlands Combined Authority, expected in June.

Yet the final “devolution deal” to the combined authority – headed by an elected mayor despite Coventry voters’ rejection of such a system in 2012 – is yet to be presented by the government for West Midlands councils including Coventry to democratically vote on.

Labour councillors have provided no clarity on the headline figures, amid a total absence of analysis on whether such monies could be allocated by ministers to Coventry, or bid for, without Coventry joining a combined authority.

Labour councillor Jim O’Boyle said Coventry’s unemployment remained higher than the regional and national average, and Coventrians’ earnings remained 58th worst out of 63 UK cities.