Eleventh-hour change sees tax raised higher

Arun Conservatives pushed through the 3.1 per cent rise, supported by Independents and UKIP
Arun Conservatives pushed through the 3.1 per cent rise, supported by Independents and UKIP

AN ELEVENTH-hour change saw Arun councillors raise council tax by 3.1 per cent on Tuesday – more than the planned 1.95 per cent increase.

Arun District Council Conservatives pushed through the rise after a last-minute rule change by central government allowed authorities a £5 annual increase – more than the previous two per cent limit.

Leader Gill Brown, who proposed the rise alongside the council’s wider annual budget, said: “This budget continues to keep a firm grip on our finances and as a result we will continue to deliver our 63 per cent of those essential local Government services for a Band D council tax of only £3.20 a week. That is what I call real value for money and it is still below the average Band D charge.”

The budget was supported by UKIP and the Independent group.

The Liberal Democrats suggested two amendments, in a bid to ring-fence funding on services for the elderly and stop potential closures of play parks across the district.

Both votes were lost, with the proposals branded ‘irrelevant’ and ‘superfluous’ during heated debate, with Tories arguing budgets were confirmed for elderly services and an upcoming review of play parks policy was planned.

Responding to Mrs Brown’s speech, Lib Dem leader Francis Oppler criticised previous council tax freezes, adding the authority was now faced with the ‘stark reality’ of those previous decisions.

He pointed to tough times ahead, with the council’s 2020 Vision work ‘seeking to make a further £4-5million of cuts’.

He said: “The reality is more staff will be lost, services cut and others outsourced, while the Conservative leadership ignores the huge way we have wasted money. £1.75million on the local plan shambles, £60,000 on planning appeals, £276,000 each year on communication and £140,000 on cabinet member salaries every four years.”

While Mr Oppler warned about not increasing council tax previously, deputy Lib Dem leader Dr James Walsh argued the council tax rise proposed was ‘whopping’ and ten times the rate of inflation.

Cabinet member Paul Dendle said Lib Dem logic was ‘topsy-turvy’, stating that under Mr Oppler’s views, council tax would be ten per cent higher than it was as a result of the rise.

Arun’s portion of council tax had previously been frozen for six years.

Conservative councillor Colin Oliver-Redgate said the increase was ‘well overdue’ and that it was about time people faced ‘reality’. Mrs Brown said the £4.95 increase amounted to a ‘tiny’ amount of nine pence per week.

She highlighted significant cuts in government support placing strain on budgets.

Mr Oppler opposed the amended rise, alongside Labour’s Mike Northeast. The remaining Lib Dems abstained. Tory Keith Ballard also abstained.

In UKIP’s alloted time to respond to the budget, councillor Ann Rapnik spoke only to confirm there were no amendments from the group.

The meeting stretched well over three hours, at times descending into confusion as procedures on the order of speaking were unclear.

The council’s audio system suffered technical difficulties, with the volume dropping mid-way through Mrs Brown’s key speech.

Debate was prickly at times, with Mr Dendle at one point accusing the Lib Dems of ‘lacking a brain’ in relation to their amendments. He later changed this to a ‘financial brain’.

The wider budget includes an investment in the council’s new leisure centre in Littlehampton, as well as plans to build 49 new council homes.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Oppler said he had meant to abstain on the amendment, not vote against.

He said gradual increases of under two per cent would have reduced the amount of savings required over the next few years.