Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Could Whitwick Parish Council's 50% council tax increase have been less? (Spoiler: the answer is yes)

I don't do much blogging these days. In general terms I am far too busy. But something has happened over the past few days to make me get tapping at my keyboard once more.

A few days ago I went to Morrisons and on the way out I was stopped by the clerk of a neighbouring parish council. The clerk in question had heard that this year Whitwick Parish Council, a council of which I have been a member since it was formed in 2011 and one of the only two Chairmen since it's formation, had this year raised it's council tax precept by a staggering 49%.

The clerk muttered to me "I'd like to thank you."

"Why is that?" was my reply.

"With an increase of 49% Whitwick Parish Council are making the rest of us look good!"

And the truth is, on the face of it, the clerk was absolutely right.

Here's a list of Parish Councils in North West Leicestershire which includes a column showing, as a percentage, how much each has raised their council tax precept for the financial year 2018/19. You will notice that one stands out.

Now before we go any further I will freely admit I wasn't at the January 2018 meeting of the Whitwick Parish Council when raising the parish's portion of tax went up. I was playing the Dame in the Thringstone Pantomime production of Rapunzel.

My point is that absolutely I could have raised the points I raise today at that meeting. I really shouldn't have had to though, you don't go wild demanding other people's money unless there is an absolute need to do so.

So lets move on.

There's two things at this point I want to tell you about how Whitwick Parish Council gets its money. There are no secrets here; every fact and every figure comes from public documents.

The first thing to note is that it costs Whitwick Parish Council somewhere in the region of £220,00 a year to operate. This covers the cost of parks maintenance; running a park hall and a pavilion; grit bins, planters and public waste bins; and of course salaries.

The vast bulk of that running cost, last year £193,704, comes from a council tax precept; paid for directly by the residents of Whitwick.

About £15,000 came as a support grant from North West Leicestershire District Council; around £7,000 from letting out the Park Hall and a few bits and bobs from elsewhere.

The second thing to note is that several years ago an internal auditor, paid for by the Parish Council, informed councillors that the council's bank accounts didn't carry enough reserves.

The auditor said that the council should aim to have half a year's typical spending held in a bank account, in case of a major local incident. Councillors agreed, including me, that they would aim to reach the recommended level of reserves by 2019.

This Year

As is always the case at this time of year the Council's Parish Manager produced a budget report for 2018/19.

The report said the council in 2017/18 would spend more than it had originally planned. It said in the current year expenditure had exceeded income by £9,023. Next year (2018/19) all things being equal the shortfall may well increase to £25,747.

Whitwick Parish Council's bank account is pretty healthy though. It is forecast to stand at £75,327 on 1 April 2018. Which is still a fair way off from being 50% of annual spending but it's not what most people would call sickly either.

So what did Whitwick Parish Council decide to do for this year's tax?

Did they agree to a nominal percentage increase? Did they look to cover the cost of the revenue spending shortfall? (Both would have been perfectly responsible ways forward)

Of course the answer is no. Here's the extract from the council's published minutes.

Yes that's right! They decided to increase the percentage that Whitwick residents would pay to the running costs of the Parish by a huge 50%

The Parish Councillors raised their precept from £193,704 last year to £290,556 this year.

If you live in an average Band D house you will pay £51 more council tax if you live in Whitwick than if you live in Thringstone or Coalville.

You'll pay £26 more than if you live in Ibstock, £47 more than Measham or £39 more than if you live in Ellistown.

The only place in the entire district where you will pay a comparable amount is Castle Donington, they have a 2% increase this year and paid £570,000 buying an old hotel (if you're into that sort of thing)

Now in and of itself I am no fan of raising council tax full stop.

I believe it's far better to leave families to enjoy their hard earned money rather than putting it in the pockets of a parish council.

But where there is a need I will and I have voted for increases.

In my mind that should be the exception and not the rule; to balance the books only when a budget has been subject to scrutiny and there isn't any fat that can be trimmed.

With that in mind, and once again I accept I wasn't at the budget setting meeting - although my single vote of protest wouldn't have changed the outcome, I have some questions to publicly ask those who agreed to increasing council tax by one of the highest percentages in the entire country. Here goes:

  • I've been told the precept had to be increased because the district council is cutting its support grant. Yes it is. By £3,884; which doesn't account for a £96,852 increase in precept. If the reduction in support grant is being phased in over a number of years then why wasn't any amount to cancel out the reduction too?
  • This year Whitwick Park Hall has realised £7,700 in bookings income; next year the projected figure is only £3,500 but Park Hall Caretaker salaries are being budgeted as £3,610, that's more than money raised in lettings. Surely if lettings income is down then salaries income should be too? (Or, what work is being done to ensure bookings income remains at its current level?) 
  • At a time when hard pressed families are struggling to make ends meet, and council tax is going up massively, should staff training budgets go up from £750 to £1,250? (They certainly haven't in the private sector)
  • Parish Councillors have approved a budget which will see planned free reserves, that is reserves that have no fixed purpose and can be spent freely, go up to £130,527 by the end of March 2019. If there was a need to increase reserves by the amount is it really necessary to create new budget lines for contingencies for running the Park Hall (£1,545), Pavilion (£750), Community Office (£500), Railway Station (£750), Salaries (£520) and maintain an existing contingency budget for elections which has never previously been used (£2,500)? Surely the aim is not to use contingencies, they're not supposed to be slush funds, isn't there at least an element of double counting in increasing reserves AND creating new contingency pots?
  • Finally, Parish Councillors have previously stated they would like to achieve a balance of free reserves equal to six months revenue spending. Given that the National Association of Local Councils state that reserves "should fall within a range of 3 to 12 months net revenue expenditure", wouldn't it at least be prudent to have reduced this ambitious aim in the short term? 

Of course whether the increase is a wise move or not will ultimately become the decision of the voters in May of next year.

It's been said to me that a 50% increase only represents about 68 pence a week, and it does.

But if you have two young children 68 pence a week also represents roughly the cost of putting decent shoes on your kid's feet.

It all comes down to what we want our parish council's to do for us. I think the increase was a step too far, other decent people think it was perfectly reasonable.

Whitwick Parish Council is a Labour controlled council. The majority of those who supported the increase were Labour members.

As a Conservative you may expect me to disagree with them.

But ultimately my last question is this:

Could Whitwick Parish Council have taken reasonable steps to negate such a high precept increase? I would suggest, undoubtedly, they could.

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