At a public meeting last night, Town Councillors from Residents for Uttlesford, Liberal Democrats and Labour voted to approve a budget solution for Saffron Walden Town Council that will mend the poor financial state inherited from the previous Conservative Town Council and secure the Town Hall. At a meeting that saw statements from Conservative councillors proclaiming that the Town Council had ‘never been party political’, the final vote saw cross party support from Labour, Liberal Democrat and R4U with en-bloc opposition from the conservatives, despite Cllr K. Eden assenting to each line item of the budget previously at the committee stage.
The budget process
In December 2015 councillors committed to work together to fix the poor state of the Saffron Walden Town Council’s finances inherited from the previous administration. All possibilities and alternatives had to be considered, and then the process of scaling and prioritisation began. Early on it was apparent that this process would involve tough decision making.
Cllr Richard Freeman addressed last night’s meeting, saying that
“We could’ve walked away, said that everything can be privatised. We are now 10% in reserves of the recommended level. This would mean that this council could go bankrupt if we were hit, and all because we didn’t have the courage to do it. If you want UDC to lower their precept in turn, you need to go and speak to the them.”
At a Town Council meeting on Thursday 14th January members worked on the subcommittee to review the 2016 budget, and voted to send the proposals to the Full Council for final review and approval on 21 January. The Full Council has now approved the budget, which for the first time, plans ahead for the next 5 years.
Scale of the problem
The Town Council is having to spend £1000 of taxpayers’ money per week just on safety scaffolding and safeguarding the public from falling debris.
Cllr Paul Gadd, leader of R4U at Saffron Walden Town Council said
“By now it is well known that the outgoing Town Council administration left us with a large funding deficit, general financial reserves drained by 80%, and a Town Hall that is falling down. In fact the Town Hall is in such a perilous state that the insurance company has now withdrawn storm damage cover. The Town Council is having to spend £1,000 of taxpayers’ money per week just on safety scaffolding and safeguarding the public from falling debris.”
Cllr Gadd continued
“All four parties at the Town Council have been involved in the budgeting process, and officers under the leadership of our new Town Clerk, have worked very hard to find a budget solution that councillors can support. The Council should not be running a deficit as the previous administration had, so the challenge of having to balance the budget in 2016/17 was a colossal one. This could not be achieved without a slight increase in council tax. The proposed budget will see a 49p-a-week increase in the typical Band-D Saffron Walden Council Tax Precept, and a proposed 6p a week increase the year after.”
Town Council Officers showed an 11% deficit in the former Conservative Council’s 2014-15 spend. Income from council tax was £803,000 but the Conservative led council at the time spent £89,000 more – in effect avoiding a tax increase before the election.
Lib-Dem Cllr Mike Hibbs said
“It is important to plan properly for the future. The proposed 2016 budget is financially sound, and for the first time the Council will now also have a 5-year financial plan. Under the plan services will be maintained, buildings and vehicles will be repaired, and we won’t be running a deficit. Significantly from the second year we’ll be able to rebuild our general reserves each year to a reasonable level.”
“Proud to play their part”
Both Cllr S. Eden and Cllr K. Eden made it clear that they objected to a ‘tax and spend’ policy, with Cllr K. Eden stating that he “Couldn’t ask the old of this town to pay for the young”. Much was made of speaking on behalf of the electorate, but it was Councillor Arthur Coote who actually took to the streets in preparation for last night’s meeting and knock on doors. He said that of the 312 local residents he visited, 298 of them supported the necessary increase in the Town Council precept, stating that “They are proud to be a part of Saffron Walden and play their part“.
What are ‘General Reserves’?
Saffron Walden Town Council officers provided their first preview of the Council’s finances to councillors at a meeting of the Full Council on 10th December. Councils are required to keep ‘rainy day’ funds called General Reserves to cover unexpected eventualities and bridge cash flows. The financial officer’s presentation to councillors and members of the public showed that these General Reserves are less than £60,000, against recommended guidelines of £500,000 and they were repeatedly described as “woefully inadequate” by officers.
Central Government pushing responsibility for services on locals without footing the bill
Labour’s Cllr Arthur Coote said
“We know that overall Council Tax bills are likely to go up as central government squeezes more of the tax burdens onto local authorities. That means it is important that the increases from the Saffron Walden Town component are minimised. However this modest increase will allow us to also repair the Town Hall, a building at the heart of our community. The way we maintain it represents our commitment to caring for our town. This budget will spread the cost of the repair over several years. The immediate actions this year will make it safe and remove the scaffolding that is currently protecting the public from falling tiles and masonry.”
The budget will also allow the Town Council to draw up proper plans for other neglected assets, and to prepare proper preventative maintenance to try to stop the Council’s assets deteriorating in future. Facing cuts in central government funding, Essex County Council also recently announced that they proposed to increase their part of Council Tax bills by 84p-a-week for an average Band-D property. In the wider context of local government pressure to provide services without streams of supportive funding, it was crucial to ensure that this Town Council budget not only planned ahead for the first time, but redressed the deficit to ensure a stable foundation for moving forward.