Councillors clash over council tax increase with opposition calling for referendum

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams
Viewpoint: Queen Street works, the Riverside by-election and council finances

Sparks flew in a heated Royal Borough meeting on Wednesday night, when the full council assembled to discuss the financial implications of COVID-19 over the next five years.

Nearly £8.4million must be saved in next year’s budget, according to the borough’s revised medium-term financial strategy.

Last week council leader Andrew Johnson (Con, Hurley and Walthams) said he intended to lobby the Government to raise the council tax cap, in light of the significant financial strain being placed on local councils by the pandemic.

Currently, the council will only able to increase council tax by two per cent next year, as well as a two per cent adult social care increase unless a referendum is held.

Many of the councillors who spoke at the extraordinary meeting agreed that the Royal Borough has no choice but to increase council tax beyond its current cap.

Though Cllr Johnson wants to approach Government directly, opposition councillors suggested that the Royal Borough should be ‘courageous’ and put the choice to residents in a referendum instead.

“The electorate deserves more than grubby, behind-the-scenes deals with central government on the subject of COVID,” said Councillor Geoff Hill (The Borough First, Oldfield).

“The Conservative leadership must come clean about council tax and set out the hard choices to the electorate.”

These ‘hard choices’ could include the cessation of some non-statutory Royal Borough services, such as those in the culture sector and certain library services.

Councillor Stuart Carroll (Con, Boyn Hill) countered: “It’s not ‘grubby’ to have a process which involves seeking to get a fair deal for all of local government, with Government. That is the point of democracy.”

Councillor Ross McWilliams (Con, Cox Green) said that he felt that 10 years of central Government ‘bearing down’ on local government has added a great deal of pressure.

“There’s been a clamp down on the use of council tax as a way of growing services,” he said. “Council tax flexibility is long overdue. A day of reckoning is coming in local government finance.”

Cllr McWilliams objected to opposition councillors’ claims that the current situation has been caused or greatly worsened by the council’s lack of reserves and previous financial mismanagement.

“To suggest the problems we have now are a result of something we addressed earlier this year is absurd,” he said.

“This [pandemic] is a financial storm of a magnitude which local government has never seen before.”

Cllrs Johnson, Carroll and David Hilton (Con, Ascot & Sunninghill) echoed this opinion and Cllr Johnson lambasted the opposition for pouring ‘cold water’ on the hard work of the officers and staff in the borough.

“The Liberal Democrats have spectacularly underwhelmed this evening – leadership and statesmanlike positions were called for and you blew it,” he said.

He finished the meeting by claiming that, despite COVID-19, it is ‘credible’ that the Royal Borough can still finish this year close to a balanced budget.

“In the context of all the local authorities around us, it’s a tremendous achievement,” he said.

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