Sunday, 29 November 2020

Community grants agreed despite protest

HENLEY Town Council has agreed to spend up to £631,000 on community projects next year

HENLEY Town Council has agreed to spend up to £631,000 on community projects next year.

The budget for the year beginning on April 1 was approved after a heated debate between the ruling Conservatives and opposition Henley Residents’ Group at a meeting last week.

The Tories said they were investing in the town's long-term interests while opposition member claimed it was storing up financial problems.

The council has already budgeted for grants of £100,000 to both Henley Rugby Club and Henley YMCA and £75,000 towards repairs of the two chapels at Fair Mile cemetery.

These would mean cashing in investments to meet a shortfall of £304,200.

The capital expenditure budget of £256,000 includes £50,000 towards replacing the Over-60s club building, creating a £50,000 transport strategy and £50,000 for improving Makins recreation ground and Freemans Meadow. A further £100,000 has been set aside as a loan to the rugby club.

This means a further £356,000 would have to be drawn down from reserves and investments.

The budget will run an operational surplus of £800. Councillor Will Hamilton, chairman of the finance strategy and management committee, said: “We are investing considerably in our recreational facilities and amenities, a parks consultation is in place and a new transport strategy is under way.

“Of course, in my first budget, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Mayor’s allowance, which we are not increasing year-on-year.

“It shows we live in a time of austerity in which we and other councils are being prudent and making savings.

“A balanced and sustainable budget has always been our intention. This is a budget that, along with our examiner approved neighbourhood plan, is building the future of Henley. It is the right budget for Henley at the right time.”

But Councillor Ian Reissmann (HRG) said: “If that’s a balanced budget, I would like to see an unbalanced one. It’s an extraordinary number and is unsustainable.”

He claimed the budget defeated the aim of the council’s corporate plan to retaining financial security and that its reserves of £4.5million would be gone in eight years if spending continued at the planned rate.

Cllr Reissmann said that between 2011 and 2015, when HRG controlled the council, it ran a revenue surplus of £84,000 despite spending £781,000 on projects such as the new toilets at the Leichlingen pavilion and refurbishement of the new toddler playground at Mill Meadows.

“That was prudent accounting and sound finances,” he said. “What we have here is economic incompetence and fiscal incontinence. It is a failure to live within our means. We can afford it for one year but things can only get worse from there.”

He admitted HRG ran a deficit in its final year but said this followed criticism that the group was building up too big a surplus.

Cllr Reissmann said Oxfordshire County Council wanted to devolve responsibility for bus subsidies and children’s centres and it would be “tragic” if the town council couldn’t afford these.

But Councillor Dylan Thomas (Con) said: “You are misleading and manipulating facts — we came into this council with a budget deficit that you bequeathed us. Is the £100,000 we’re investing in the YMCA reckless spending? It’s investment in a community asset which has been hard fought for and incredibly well managed by our Deputy Mayor. This is complete politics and shame on you for it.”

Councillor Jane Smewing (HRG) said it would be “irresponsible” to support the Conservatives’ proposals and that councillors should assess “very carefully” any investments that didn’t bring a return.

Councillor Sam Evans (Con) said her stance was “extraordinary” as HRG had left the new toilets and playground makeover until too late to seek grants, so the council had to fund the total cost.

“We’re putting forward a sustainable, three-and-a-half year plan to ensure we get the money from every single source possible,” she said.

“We will not rely on the taxpayers of Henley to provide every single penny for knee-jerk projects that people think will make them look good.”

Councillor David Nimmo Smith (Con) added: “We should be building for the future, which these investments will do.”

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