Members approved the 2021-22 budget and medium-term financial plan at its full council meeting on Wednesday, February 24, and it features savings of £8.2million, a capital spending programme totalling £291million next year, and a rent increase of 1.5% for council tenants.
The proposals were passed by 37 votes to none, with 21 abstentions, and Conservative councillors backing their leadership supported by the three Bedlington independents, two of the other independents and one Lib Dem. The Labour opposition abstained.
Cllr Georgina Hill, the independent member for Berwick East, voted for the budget after her amendment to bring forward funding the business case for new Berwick schools and increase the overall pot by £20million was passed.
Council leader Glen Sanderson said: “I’m very proud of this budget. This budget is about involving the public, protecting the public and making sure that out public get the best deal they can.
“Above all, it’s about supporting our staff, investing in our county from border to border, and, as this Covid virus moves on and our lives become more steady and certain, being more confident in the future for all our people.”
But the leader of the Labour group, Cllr Susan Dungworth, said it ‘is exactly what it says on the tin, an election-year budget’ with ‘lots of promises of jam tomorrow, lots of budget lines that hint at things, but if we follow the pattern of this administration, they won’t materialise in bricks and mortar, or improved services’.
The referendum threshold for increases in council tax, set by the Government, remained at 2% this year, while authorities are also able to charge an adult social care precept of up to 3%, meaning what is essentially the maximum 4.99% increase has been seen in many places.
Northumberland ratepayers will see a 1.99% general rise, but the care precept will be split over two years ‘to try to soften the impact’, so the bill will increase by 3.74% next year and – in theory, depending on what happens in the May elections – 3.24% in 2022-23.
That equates to a £62.79 annual increase for a band D property, or £1.21 a week, and £41.87, or 81p a week, for a band D property.
On top of this, there is the Northumbria Police precept, which is increasing by 4.99%, equivalent to an additional £6.84 on a band D property, and the town and parish precepts, which all vary both in totals and rises for the coming year.
Total bills from April 1 will therefore vary from £1,311.73 (parishes without councils) to £1,427.32 (Newbiggin) for band A properties, and from £1,967.59 to £2,140.97 for band D properties.
‘Efficiencies’ of £8.2million have been identified to balance the budget for 2021-22 – with further cuts of £10.5million and £12.5million earmarked for the following years – but the Conservative administration says that there will also be ‘a significant push on helping Northumberland to recover and grow economically, with an emphasis on delivering a green and sustainable future for the county’.
This includes what chiefs call a ‘very, very ambitious’ capital spending programme of almost £750million over three years, including £291million in 2021-22.
The Tories have also highlighted that despite cuts, the gross revenue budget contains millions of pounds more in key areas – £5.4million for adult social care, £8.5million for children’s services and £3.1million for local services.
Speaking earlier this year, Cllr Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, said: “We’d stress that these savings are not straight across-the-board cuts to levels of provision – the emphasis is on doing things more efficiently, doing things differently and investing in up-front support rather than higher-cost interventions further down the line.
“We’re looking at an overall budget spend of around £801million compared to £780million last year – every penny of which will be used to spend on services and invest in regenerating our communities.”
However, the Labour opposition has claimed that it’s a ‘smoke and mirrors budget that moves the majority of difficult decision-making to after the local elections in May’.