05:55PM, Wednesday 17 February 2021
The Royal Borough’s administration and opposition are split on the budget, with the Conservatives claiming a win for economic prudence, while the opposition parties feel the council is ‘abandoning’ residents and spinning the information.
The leader of the council has called on the Royal Borough to ‘lock down’ the budget when it meets to discuss it on Tuesday – despite the ‘tough decisions’ this entails.
The draft budget for 2021/22 outlines a series of proposals to balance the Royal Borough’s books, including a series of potential cuts, some of which have proved controversial and unpopular with residents.
In a recent meeting the cabinet agreed to remove one of these proposals – the introduction of parking charges in rural car parks.
Other plans, such as moving to fortnightly general waste collections, changes to library services, cutting grants to the arts and changes to community policing remain in the draft budget.
Leader of the council Andrew Johnson said some ‘very tough decisions had to be made’ to ensure financial stability for the borough moving forward into a post-pandemic world, to make sure the Borough is ‘fighting fit’ for the nation’s economic recovery.
“We have slightly erred on the side of caution and leaned more onto the pessimistic side of things,” said Cllr Johnson. “There’s no guarantee how long financial support (from the Government) is going to continue.”
Cllr Johnson said that cuts to arts are an attempt to rectify the ‘slightly precarious nature’ that Norden Farm is in as a result of depending on council funding rather than being self-sufficient.
“The more financially resilient they are, the better, particularly for them. It’s for the mutual benefit of both parties,” he said.
Most of the cuts, except for the switch to fortnightly bin collections, are to create savings and make the services ‘more efficient’.
The biggest growth areas of the budget are to adult and children’s services, to ‘mitigate the COVID-19 legacy’ – for example, the effects of long COVID on adult social care and increased cases of mental health issues in children.
The budget proposals also include a ‘reluctant rise’ in council tax.
“I fully appreciate this is a difficult time for many residents and the last thing I want to do is increase that pressure,” said Cllr Johnson. “We think about all the options before raising council tax. Even after a five per cent rise, this is still one of the lowest council tax boroughs in the country, hundreds of pounds cheaper than councils across the South East.”
He called on opposition councillors to make ‘genuine’ alternative proposals to the budget where they disagree.
“It worries me the level of negativity from the opposition,” he said. “Nobody is going to want to invest in an area that doesn’t have confidence in itself.
“What I’d really like to see is some genuine alternatives. It’s fair to say that I’m not ideologically wedded to outsourcing at all costs.
“Whatever proposals we don’t take forward we still have to find savings to deliver a balanced budget,” Cllr Johnson said.
“Should we get the budget approved, we will be back on course to provide medium to long-term stability.”
W See p4 for the opposition view on the budget proposals.
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