Coronavirus crisis triggers tough budget for council

St Albans district council leader Chris White.

St Albans district council leader Chris White. - Credit: Archant

Drastic measures to survive the devastating impact of the pandemic on district council finances have received the green light from councillors.

Despite government support, SADC faces a £1.7m revenue shortfall, with this figure set to rise to a further gap of £2.2m for the period of 2022-23.

In a bid to avoid sweeping service cuts and catastrophic consequences for years to come, the Lib Dem administration called on their fellow councillors from across the political spectrum to back a budget aimed at helping SADC to weather the coronavirus storm.

Council leader Cllr Chris White told a meeting of full council: "Tight budgets mean tough decisions... My plea to this council is to recognise the tough position we have reached and are still in and accept that there is some pain to be shared by all... This budget is sound. It is prudent. It is fair."

As part of the cost-saving measures, a structural review is underway within the council organisation, free parking arrangements for staff and councillors will be reviewed to incentivise green travel, there will be a one-off reduction in events budgets, and garden waste collection charges will be introduced. Plans to purchase real estate in Harpenden High Street have also been dropped.

But the budget includes a 2.75 per cent increase in the district’s share of Council Tax for the coming year, although there will be a 1.16% reduction for Harpenden residents related to the planned transfer of Rothamsted Park to Harpenden Town Council. 

Additionally, social housing rents will increase by 1.5 per cent (including 0.5 per cent from the Consumer Prices Index), the number of Community News magazines will be reduced from four to three per annum and the mayoral budget will be reduced.

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Cllr White said after the meeting: "I am pleased that the budget went through with some changes following representations made from other groups. This was not and will not be an easy budget and the following years will be little better. I can hope that we get more government support and that Covid eases and starts restoring the council's finances to normal."

Tory leader Cllr Mary Maynard responded: "This budget hits the poorest hardest. It is a Sheriff of Nottingham budget, taking from the poor to give to the rich.

"It increases Council Tax by more than three times the rate of inflation. It originally planned to reduce grants to Shop Mobility, remove bus subsidies and reduce funding to the taxi voucher scheme and only reinstated some of these after severe criticism from other political parties. It introduces green bin charges, a regressive tax that increases Council Tax by up to 37% in smaller homes.

"It is a worrying budget, showing a huge build-up of cumulative debt, forecast to run at similar levels to those councils at serious risk of bankruptcy.  This is because the administration is failing to manage property development schemes effectively, with all its major projects delivered late and over budget and profit from schemes delayed and reduced.

"They are also slashing staff numbers, with over £1 million off staff-related budgets. This will inevitably lead to a decline in service, given current service problems are already excused on an inability to get and retain staff. Promises on climate change are being watered down, with marginal amounts being spent.

"Who wins in this budget?  Property developers and their professional partners, with over £1.2M promised to property developers in East Hemel and hundreds of thousands being paid out in fees for speculative commercial property purchases.

"The Liberal Democrats say they have problems because of Covid. The truth is they have been reimbursed by the government for the majority of their Covid losses and were left millions in reserves by the former Conservative administration that cover the rest. They have financial problems because they are wasting money on property speculation, do not understand how to run property projects and cannot deliver efficient services."