Waltham Forest Council agrees biggest rise in council tax for 14 years
Councillors have voted to raise council tax by a total of five percent, the steepest hike for Waltham Forest residents since 2004.
For a household in an average-sized Band D property, it means they’ll pay an extra £76.98 for the 2018-19 financial year. It is the third increase in a row, over which time the average annual bill has risen by more than £160.
The council is blaming the tax hike on government cuts to its annual grant, combined with the financial pressures of an ageing population and more school-age children. Another factor is the major change to council funding that will be introduced in two years’ time, when local authorities will become ‘self-financing’ through the retention of business rates. A big chunk of the increase in council tax – two out of the five percent allotted – will be spent solely on adult social care services.
The council’s budget was debated in a meeting at Waltham Forest Town Hall on Thursday night. Before it could begin, a trial of a new electronic voting system saw councillors agree that Roger Moore was the best James Bond.
Councillor Clare Coghill, in her first budget address as council leader, told the meeting: “We need to be clear that it is in this age of austerity that our budget is drawn up. These ongoing Tory cuts cannot be justified. In Waltham Forest we’ve seen £115million – 63% – stripped away from our budget since 2010.
“In light of this unfairness I am delighted this council has gone on to improve services. We have taken a responsible, sensible approach to the budget constraints forced upon us… I am pleased to announce we are making no additional cuts to our budget this year. Our prudent planning has put us in a strong and stable position.”
The budget put forward by the ruling Labour administration included a £173m capital spending programme, funding projects including a new £2m sports facility at Ive Farm in Leyton and £328,000 on revamping shopfronts in Leytonstone. Also included for future budgets, between 2019 and 2021, was an allocation of £2m for redesigning Walthamstow Town Square and Gardens, as part of the redevelopment of The Mall.
The opposition Conservative group on the council proposed an amended budget. Councillor Alan Siggers, the opposition leader, said he agreed on the need to raise council tax by at least two percent to cover the rising costs of adult social care, but put forward a series of savings he claimed would negate the need for further rises.
The £2.8m of savings proposed by the Tories included increasing the cost of pre-planning fees for developers, raising £200,000; reducing agency and consultancy payments by £500,000; cutting the amount spent on producing Waltham Forest News by £150,000; and placing 200 of the borough’s homeless households to whom the council has a duty of care in private rented homes instead of bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodation, saving £500,000.
Cllr Siggers said: “The planning department should be self-funded, but the idea of charging developers for the advice of officers might not sit well with the other side of this chamber.”
Regarding a further suggested saving, of reducing the council’s contingency budget by £875,000, Cllr Siggers added: “The contingency budget has doubled. Because of Brexit? Big bad Brexit? We heard from Clare [Coghill] about how terrible it will be. Can you outline for me the Labour Party’s position on Brexit?”
Councillor Khevyn Limbajee, cabinet member for housing, defended the council’s record on housing and homelessness. He said: “This council has one of the best records on getting people out of B&Bs… As an innovative council we are doing a deal to provide 400 new homes for homeless households.”
Councillor John Moss, a Conservative, criticised the continued publication of Waltham Forest News, contrary to government guidelines on taxpayer-funded publications. He said: “We choose to spend taxpayers’ money on a bi-weekly propaganda rag that is illegal. I don’t know how you get away with it.”
Councillor Clyde Loakes, deputy leader of the council, responded to some of the criticisms. He said: “This borough has cut its spending on agency workers by 50 percent in two years. When we can make those jobs permanent we do, and we have demonstrated that.”
Regarding Waltham Forest News, Cllr Loakes added: “Surely a decision about how to communicate with residents is a decision for us, not government? No-one reads the Waltham Forest Guardian. We can’t put our notices in a local media that is largely irrelevant.”
The council’s budget was passed, unamended, with a vote of 36 in favour and 13 against.
How much will your council tax rise in 2018/19? See the table below: