Sunderland council tax rise officially approved after opposition attempts to halt increase, with scrapping Sunderland Airshow and cutting allowances among money-saving proposals rejected
Council tax is set to rise by almost 5% on Wearside after council chiefs agreed spending plans for the coming year – with money-saving proposals such as scrapping the Sunderland Airshow and cutting allowances rejected.
This week, the Labour-run authority approved a budget which includes a council tax rise of 4.99% from April, with 3% of that earmarked for adult social care.
As part of the 2021/22 budget, the council has identified savings of £6.3million for the coming financial year and will use £2.3million of reserves on a one-off basis to balance the books.
Council chiefs stressed that Sunderland City Council’s council tax would remain the lowest in the North East.
The rise for 2021/22 represents an increase of 94p per week for a Band A property or a £1.41 increase for an average Band D property towards council services.
Increased precepts for police and fire services would also be added to council tax bills for both city and parish areas.
Spending plans for 2021/22 and beyond were discussed at the budget meeting on March 3, which was held via videolink and broadcast on YouTube.
Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said the “positive budget” would continue with regeneration plans for the city and keep vital services running, while also supporting those most in need.
And he insisted the hike to household bills had been forced upon the council by the Government and that more sustainable funding was needed to avoid passing the cost of adult social care onto local taxpayers.
“We’re told by government that our core spending power is to rise by 4.5% next year but the part they’re less vocal about is that to achieve this, local councils need to increase their local taxes by 4.99%,” Cllr Miller said.
“The Local Government Finance Settlement for 2021/22 is thankfully recognising the continued funding of social care with the provision of additional grant funding.
“This increase will help support the pressures which we, alongside most other councils, are experiencing in both children’s and adult social care.
“However, this funding increase falls and fails to fully address these ever mounting pressures and fails to make good the significant and disproportionate funding reductions we have had to bear since 2010.”
Cllr Miller added: “The funding provided in the 2021/22 settlement by Government is simply not enough.
“As in previous years the local social care precept has been used by the Government to shift the difficult decisions away from itself to local government.
“No local authority cabinet wants to be proposing increased local taxes at any time, never mind during a global pandemic, but the Government simply leaves us no choice.”
He added: “Unfortunately it’s a choice between asking those who can to contribute more, or cutting essential services at a time when these are needed the most.
“To add to the unfairness, the funding system disadvantages councils such as ourselves, given our local council tax base, which means our ability to raise funding through these routes is much lessened in comparison to affluent Tory heartlands elsewhere in the country.”
Council bosses said that the 2021/22 budget was informed by consultation and had been scrutinised several times at council committees.
Revenue spending plans for the year include ongoing funding for environmental services, housing services and waste disposal and support for vulnerable residents during the pandemic.
This includes pest control charges being halved for those in receipt of council tax support and a new £1 million Covid-19 ‘response fund’ to provide support to families and communities.
Council tax hardship funding would also be provided for those in receipt of local council tax support to reduce bills by up to £150, which is set to benefit more than 16,000 working age households.
Council bosses added they were proposing a capital programme of nearly £250million next year, with more than £350 million of investment planned to be spent in the following three financial years.
Capital spending plans include new housing on both sides of the river and a new high-level pedestrian footbridge at Riverside Sunderland, the creation of the Culture House facility at Keel Square, investment to set up a ‘heritage and visitor centre’ at Washington’s ‘F’ Pit and redeveloping the city’s central railway station.
Plans also include continued development and deployment of digital and 5G technology in the city, investment into specific schools and supported accommodation, funds for projects to help reduce carbon emissions and improve transport and further allotment and open space proposals.
At the meeting, amendments to Labour’s budget were submitted by the city council’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition groups.
The Conservative group proposed saving more than £2million from the revenue budget by cancelling the International Air Show and Festival of Light in 2021 for ‘Covid security reasons’, reducing the council’s communications budget, reducing councillors’ allowances and abolishing all councillors’ expenses, amongst other proposals.
The group aimed to reallocate this funding for several schemes – including park and cemetery wardens, free means-tested pest control in residential areas, 30 rat baiting bins across city parks and green spaces, a reduction in Labour’s proposed council tax rise and other changes.
Liberal Democrats proposed saving around £1.6million from the revenue budget with proposals ranging from reducing the number of area committees from five to three and slashing the council’s corporate communications budget by 25%, to reducing councillors’ allowances and expenses and removing the council’s budget for carbon reduction.
Instead, the group’s revenue proposals included reversing the 2018/19 and 2019/20 brown bin charge increases, introducing a single free bulky item collection service for those in receipt of council tax support, reducing Labour’s proposed council tax rise and more.
Amendments to Labour’s capital budget proposals were also submitted by both opposition groups, with the Conservatives looking to delete the £4.6million Washington ‘F’ Pit investment and instead, invest into improvements at specific schools alongside a children’s activity centre development fund in Washington and a fund to allow Together for Children to deliver more residential homes.
Meanwhile, the capital budget amendment from the Lib Dems included establishing a working group to put together a five-year leisure investment strategy for Sunderland with a budget to make improvements to public leisure space.
This included a fund for the maintenance and improvement of smaller suburban parks, enhancing the existing cycle way investment scheme, creating a programme of dog parks and exploring the acquisition or development of a city centre skatepark and motorcross track.
Following debate, both opposition budget amendments were defeated by majority votes.
The Labour group’s budget was eventually passed with 41 votes in support, 19 against and no abstentions.