Council tax frozen but opposition questions ‘no new cuts parrot cry’

The 'Don't Cut Us Out' petition is handed over.
The 'Don't Cut Us Out' petition is handed over.

The biggest chunk of the council tax bill will be frozen in West Sussex for a third year running.

West Sussex County Council agreed they would freeze their share of council tax bills for 2013/14 at Friday’s budget debate at County Hall.

Cabinet member for finance and resources Michael Brown also confirmed no new cuts are planned for the coming financial year and the county council is on track to reach the target set for the third and final year of the council’s £79 million savings programme.

Mr Brown said: “I am delighted to say that, for the third year running, we are able to freeze council tax. That means that at March 31, 2014, local taxpayers will, in cash terms, be paying the same rate of council tax that they were on April 1, 2010.

“Over that four year period, of course, we have experienced inflation and so, in real terms, the tax freeze amounts to nine per cent. Households across the county continue to struggle to make ends meet and we as a council have a duty to help them if we possibly can.”

However, during Friday’s meeting, members of the opposition pointed out three years’ of cuts are still affecting the vulnerable and the tax freeze is not just down to the council.

Liberal Democrat Dr James Walsh, member for Littlehampton East, said: “If it was not for the grants received from central government over the last three years it would have been unobtainable to maintain the council tax freeze for a third year.”

The grant received from central government is expected to be the equivalent of a one per cent rise in council tax.

Dr Walsh continued: “This phrase ‘no new cuts’, there are no new cuts this year but it is smoke and mirrors to pretend the effect of the cuts made 18 months ago are not ongoing and real. Those cuts are still happening on a daily basis for those deprived of care by this county council and no words will get away from that.

“This parrot cry of ‘no new cuts’ is a nonsense and a fraud and it needs to be exposed to the electorate of this county council.”

However, council leader Louise Goldsmith welcomed the budget and said partnerships were working well.

Mr Brown also said local authorities had to expect to ‘shoulder yet more burden’.

“Central government support for West Sussex is six per cent lower than last year,” he said. “Disappointing but not unexpected. The average cut to all councils was only 3.9 per cent so this council’s disproportionate harsh treatment continues.

“This economic approach argues that by leaving money in people’s pockets rather than taking it away in tax they are able to spend more on local goods and services and in that way stimulate further economic activity.

“In my view, a tax cut is best regarded as an investment rather than an economic reward for the affluent.”

The coming year’s budget also sees £8.25m set aside for Operation Watershed. It is hoped the money will be used to pay for highway drainage and environmental improvements in areas of the county worst affected by floods.

But Morwen Millson, leader of the Liberal Democrats in West Sussex, said it was not enough and additional funds were needed after ‘persistent and heavy rainfall’ which ‘continues to threaten the fabric of our roads and pavements’.

“We welcome the additional funding for Operation Watershed but we believe it’s an inadequate response to the situation we find ourselves in today,” she said.

Liberal Democrats proposed an additional £5m be allocated for the roads from the business infrastructure fund.

“What businesses need first and foremost from this council is well maintained roads,” said Mrs Millson. “Let’s just get the roads fixed, it will help businesses and make our residents happy. The longer we leave basic maintenance the worse the job becomes when it is has to be done.”

Dr Walsh seconded the amendment and said the council had been ‘negligent in maintaining, let alone improving the roads’.

However, they said the additional £5m would only be available if the return of business rate was ‘forthcoming’.

Conservative Steve Waight criticised the Liberal Democrats for spending money which ‘may or may not’ be available .

The amendments to the budget were rejected by the council 45 to 18.

Copy by Bex Bastable