At the meeting of full council on Thursday, councillors debated the budget for the financial year 2014-15. The budget includes a modest but unavoidable increase in council tax of 1.9%, which is equivalent to an extra £4 per year or 8p a week for a Band D property and is under the current 2.1% CPI rate of inflation.
We should be under no illusions that we are likely to receive significant financial support from central government in the forthcoming years. Our grant has already been cut by 40% since 2010-11, and projections suggest that we can expect to see further reductions from £4m this year to £3.4m in 2014-15 and £3.2m in 2015-16. Our financial strategy is predicated on the view that local authorities will receive no central support by 2018 and hence it is up to us to become self-sufficient and identify our own income streams.
However, despite these pressures the council has achieved a great deal in difficult times. Hidden inside the budget papers are some impressive figures. The council has delivered efficiency savings, cost reductions and additional revenue of £2m for the next financial year. The council’s reserves have also been maintained at £3m. We run a balanced budget and our additional funding requirements are proportionally much lower than both Surrey County Council and Surrey Police – we should remember that Woking Borough Council only receives only around 12% of all council tax collected.
Some people have asked why Woking did not accept the Government’s offer of a grant this year to freeze council tax. The Executive has taken the view that it is not in the interests of residents for us to do so. The grant of £85,000 is only available for two years and will then cease, giving the council a further savings requirement on top of the funding that the Government has already signaled it will withdraw. A modest increase in council tax under the CPI rate of inflation generates some £156,000 of additional revenue per annum which is added to our base. The current model for incentivising council tax freezes is not sustainable and during the debate comparison was drawn with Runnymede Borough Council, which has accepted the grant for a number of years and is now seeking much larger, above inflation council tax increases to make up the lost revenue.
During his budget speech, the Leader of the Council set out how the Executive has maintained and improved services and kept the borough’s finances sound despite the ongoing economic challenges. In particular, he highlighted the 224 affordable homes and 163 family houses being delivered through the Moor Lane project, the sale of the Hoe Valley housing site for 150 new homes, and an anticipated further 75 affordable and 222 family homes through the sale of Brookwood Farm as progress in meeting our housing targets. He also pointed to the improvements in Jubilee Square, the beginning of the refurbishment works in Commercial Way, the opening of the Bedser Bridge, construction of New Central on Guildford Road, the opening of the WWF headquarters in Brewery Road, the new Asda in Sheerwater, the anticipated completion of the upgraded Woking market in July, the launch of the Victoria Square project, and the diverse range of new retailers in Wolsey Place and the Peacock Centre as highlights of the municipal year.
I was therefore pleased to support the budget and believe that Woking residents will show their support for the Executive’s record in this year’s local elections.