Bedfordians are to have an “eye-watering” council tax increase after a majority of councillors voted in favour of the administration’s budget in a meeting that has been described as a “bad night for local residents in Bedford Borough”.
Full Council heard on Wednesday (7 February) that the budget for 2024/25 is based upon a 2.99% increase in core council tax supplemented by a 2% increase in the adult social care precept
The portfolio holder for finance, risk and welfare, cllr Graeme Coombes (Wixams & Wilstead) said: “As a low tax Conservative this goes against my natural instinct to put up the council tax.
“But council tax is one of only three areas where the council is able to generate revenue. The others being business rates and the revenue support grant, over which we don’t have any mechanism to change what we are given by the government,” he said.
“I know that a 2.99 per cent increase is the maximum allowed. Councils up and down the country of all colours, Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Independent, hung councils, all are looking to maximise their council tax.
“It is not a unique thing for Bedford, and it shows the sheer scale of difficulty which local government, in general, finds itself due to financial pressures,” he said.
During the meeting, Liberal Democrat group leader, cllr Henry Vann said: “It is an eye-watering rise in council tax.” Cllr Michael Headley (Lib Dem, Putnoe) added, “So, after 14 years residents get to see what a Conservative budget looks like.
“We have a proposal from them to go straight in with the maximum council tax rise of 4.99 per cent.
“This is the highest rise since the creation of the unitary council and compares with an average of just 2.2 per cent over the previous mayor’s 14 budgets.
“This hits residents directly in their pockets as the cost of a crisis continues,” he said.
After the meeting, Mayor Tom Wootton seemed to celebrate the agreed budget and tax rise.
In a statement issued to the media, he said: “Firstly, I would like to thank all the Borough Officers and my Executive for helping put this budget together which, as many will know, comes at a time of great financial pressure.
“As Mayor, I vowed to be as open, transparent and consultative as possible, and I am pleased these efforts have resulted in a budget that has received cross-party support.
“This isn’t a Conservative budget it is a budget for the whole of Bedford Borough and it is chock-full of great and positive news for residents.
“From improved maintenance on roads and bridges, more GP surgeries and better Council services this budget will be stepping away from cuts and moving Bedford Borough forward in a positive direction,” he said.
But commenting on the outcome of the meeting, Cllr Henry Vann said the budget has left Bedfordians “badly let down” by what he called a “Conservative budget that was only able to be pushed through with the support of Labour councillors”.
He added, “For thirteen years we worked hard to hold Council Tax rises down through good financial management all while protecting services and investing in the Borough.
“Now we had to witness the unedifying sight of the Conservative Mayor and his minority administration – backed by Labour Councillors – voting through a record increase in tax on residents and still proposing to cut key services.
“On top of this, our proposals that would have helped residents now with more investment in renewing our local roads and pavements were rejected even though there was funding already available to support this.
“This was a bad night for local residents in Bedford Borough.”
Councillor Sue Oliver, the deputy leader of the Labour Group, said: “Perversely, part of me is glad that the Conservatives have had to experience the responsibility of setting a balanced budget.
“They have finally discovered how difficult it is to do this when since 2010 the Conservative central government has been cutting funding for local government.
“We don’t like a 4.99 [per cent] increase in council tax, but this is what the government is forcing councils across the country, of all political persuasions, to do just to decide to survive, in some cases just to avoid bankruptcy.
“Magically, the government suddenly awarded an additional £1.313 million to this council last week. You might think they have seen the error of their ways and are seeking to redress their chronic and sustained underfunding.
“Or if you’re more cynical, you might say that there’s a general election on the horizon. The Labour Group is a democratic group and our consensus is that grudgingly we will support this budget.
“But please don’t get the impression that we’re new best friends,” the ward councillor for Kempston North said.
Councillor Coombes said: “I’m under no illusion that the Conservative Group and Labour Group are suddenly best friends.
“But I thank you for your comments, I hear what you’re saying and I thank your group for saying that it will support the budget,” he said.
Green Party councillors, however, disagreed, saying it was surprising to see Labour repeatedly voting with the Conservatives and Mayor Tom Wootton, giving the Mayor’s budget “a smooth passage”.
Which prevented ‘objections’ proposed by Liberal Democrats and supported by Greens from being passed by the council.
“These aimed to increase funds for essential road and pavement renewal, for helping out with fuel poverty and support for bus routes,” said Cllr Ben Foley (Green, Greyfriars).
“If those ‘objections’ had passed, they could have resulted in the Conservative executive of the council being denied control of the budget unless it gained support from some non-Conservative councillors.
“Labour’s action here has parallels with Bristol, where the Labour mayor gets votes from Conservatives to prevent the Greens, the largest Party, from influencing the budget.”
The General Fund Revenue Budget 2024/2025 was agreed by a majority vote.
This means an average Band D Council Tax of £1,824.64 (not including precepts, such as police and fire).
by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter
and Paul Hutchinson
for the Bedford Independent