Sunday, 19 January 2020

New leader warns of council tax increase and cuts in services

New leader warns of council tax increase and cuts in services

SOUTH Oxfordshire District Council could increase council tax and cut services.

Council leader Sue Cooper has warned that the authority’s finances are in a “poor” state following years of zero or small rises in council tax.

The council was run by the Conservatives until May last year when they were ousted by a coalition of Liberal Democrats led by Councillor Cooper and Greens.

In her 2019 end of year report, Cllr Cooper says that South Oxfordshire currently charges £60 less for a typical band D property than the average across all the shire districts.

However, the Government will only allow a maximum of a £5 increase.

Cllr Cooper, who represents Benson and Crowmarsh ward, says: “Our financial situation is poor following years of holding down our council tax to levels well below the national average and even further below that in other neighbouring districts, with the exception of the Vale [of White Horse], which also has severe but different funding problems from ours.

“This means that if the funding problem is not sorted out, the people of South Oxfordshire will face service reductions.

“I am hoping that we shall have all-member briefings in the New Year to explain the financial situation following the removal of government grant and drastic reduction of the new homes bonus, on which we have been over-reliant in recent years.

“One way round our current problem would be for the Government to relax the restrictions which are put on increases in council tax.

“The small percentage of £5 per year won’t do much at all for councils in our position and we mustn’t forget we are an extremely efficient and low-spending council when compared with our peers.

“It is not our spending or our number of staff, both of which are comparatively very low, but the means by which they have been funded which are problematic.

“Funding from non-sustainable sources is risky and we are about to pay the price.

“The Government is very preoccupied with Brexit and we are busy with the budgeting process. We must hope that we get a more sensible way of funding local government expenditure as soon as possible.”

Stefan Gawrysiak, who represents Henley on the council, said the problem had been developing for the last three years with the council spending £3.5 million more than it was receiving in income.

He said: “Part of the reason is the government grant has stopped because of austerity. The other thing is that the last administration didn’t put up council tax in line with inflation.

“It is a very efficient authority when it comes to spending but they are not yet in a position where they have come up with a budget.

“Clearly, they have got to look at reducing spending and increasing council tax, which would not be popular in Henley. It would be a difficult sell.

“The council has reserves so will not go bankrupt but it is a problem that has got to be sorted out in the next four or five years. At the minute this is a big problem.”

Meanwhile, the council is still to hear from the Government about the future of its emerging local plan for 2034, which has been put on hold after councillors threatened to scrap it.

Senior council officers met with government representatives in October to discuss the temporary suspension, which is preventing the council from making any progress.

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