Free replacement bins and a lower council tax - Tories reveal alternative budget for Sunderland but Labour hit back over proposals

The Conservatives have revealed their alternative budget plan for Sunderland ahead of next month's city council meeting
The Conservatives have revealed their alternative budget plan for Sunderland ahead of next month's city council meeting

Conservatives in Sunderland have put forward an alternative budget for the city - but Labour has hit back over their proposals.

The Tories say they would limit any council tax increase to 3% to fund adult social care.

Coun Robert Oliver

Coun Robert Oliver

Opposition councillors say they have been able to find savings within the budget by eliminating wasteful items; increasing revenue and through alternative funding.

The Conservatives say they are also putting forward increased spending on priorities for the city’s and will work up detailed costs for the budget meeting on March 7.

The Conservative Group proposals include:
*Replacing the £1.5million in funding for street cleaning with a council
company which would be cost-neutral.
*Reducing councillors’ allowances by more than £100,000.
*Reducing trade union facility time.
*Increasing income from parking in line with other regional councils.
*Funding the replacement of stolen wheelie bins reported to the police.
*Increasing funding for pothole repairs.
*Funding a plastic bottles recycling scheme.

Coun Robert Oliver, leader of the majority party in opposition, said: "Residents of Sunderland are facing an unnecessary 5% council tax hike which can be limited to 3%, protecting adult social care and reducing any rise in local tax for general spending.

"Sunderland Conservatives support extra funding for adult social care and Together for Children but have identified more than the £1.8million in savings needed to limit any rise in council tax to 3%.

"The biggest saving is found by swapping the £1.5million to be spent from the council coffers on litter with a council-owned company which would raise revenue through fines and cost the taxpayer nothing.

"Sunderland Conservatives would also reduce councillors’ allowances by reining in allowances across the board and by eliminating the five deputy cabinet members, saving more than £100,000.

"In line with the priorities of residents of the city, Conservative Councillors would also increase funding for pothole repairs; pay for the replacement of stolen wheelie bins and encourage more recycling.”

Coun Mel Speding

Coun Mel Speding

However, Labour councillor and cabinet secretary Mel Speding hit back at Conservative claims and attacked the Government over "swingeing cuts" the local authority had suffered.

Coun Speding said: "Is there absolutely nothing the Tories do not want to privatise and where is the costed detail of such a proposal?

"The council has stepped up enforcement because a minority of people still think that they can go around and drop litter wherever they like.

"Because of swingeing cuts imposed on Sunderland by both the Tory/LibDem Coalition and subsequently the Tory Government, the Council simply does not have the resources now to clean up after the irresponsible few.

"People in Sunderland want a cleaner and greener city and we cannot tolerate those who are not making the effort to help keep our streets, parks, playing fields and neighbourhoods clean and tidy.

"The council has also successfully prosecuted fly-tippers in the last year and more prosecutions in the magistrates’ courts are pending.

"While there is still a role for people to be more educated and informed about their actions, the council must also enforce and fine those people who blatantly litter and fly-tip.

"Enforcement is a priority and we have put in place a new policy and extra resources to tackle the problem.

"We do not support the introduction of private firms to carry out the council’s environmental enforcement."

On the issue of councillors’ allowances, Coun Speding added: "Councillors are entitled to certain allowances, based upon their role and responsibilities within the council and the community.

"The council has an independent remuneration panel that annually reviews allowances and that would be the appropriate body for the opposition to lobby. Apart from the two LibDems taking a 75 per cent and a 50 per cent rise in their allowances. There has been no increase in basic allowances since 2012."

However, that brought a withering response from LibDem councillor Stephen O'Brien who responded: "It seems that Labour are so scared of the Lib Dems after our recent election victories across the city they have resorted to saying things about us that aren't true.

"I have been on the same allowance since I was elected - this has not increased. I believe actions speak louder than words which is why the Lib Dems are the only party who have voted to cut councillor allowances. When we tried to cut these allowances last year Labour and Conservative councillors shamefully refused to vote with us and instead chose to protect their allowances."

Responding to the proposal to reduce trade union facility time, Coun Speding said: "Since 2010 this council to date has lost over 5,000 (five thousand) jobs and in working closely with colleagues in the trades unions have been able to avoid the need for compulsory redundancies.

"In common with all employers which recognise trade unions, the council has a legal duty to grant employees paid or unpaid time off from their work duties.

"This allows them to carry out reasonable and lawful trade union duties and activities.

"The council is also required to provide reasonable facilities for such duties and activities.

"By working closely with the unions, such as through collective bargaining, this council recognises the important role that unions play in representing a workforce."

On calls to increase income from parking in line with other regional councils, Coun Speding said: "Parking is not only good value and in line with many other councils but major increases, as businesses and customers regularly tell us, could have a detrimental effect on the economy of the city. Income is continually under review, and the council now has a surplus on its parking."

And on proposals for funding the replacement of stolen wheelie bins reported to the police, he commented: "The original decision to bring in a charging policy for the replacement of bins was made in 2013.

"The implementation of the decision was postponed due to the council receiving a grant from the Government to continue weekly refuse collections which had a provision in for replacement bins.

"That grant ran out in April 2017.

"In recent years, the council has replaced approximately 10,000 wheelie bins at a cost of over £200,000. The number hovers steadily around this figure every year.

"Unfortunately, due to the impact of seven years of Lib Dem and Tory austerity, there is just not the resources available in the service budget to absorb a spend of over £200,000 each year on replacement bins; without significantly cutting other areas of the service. Areas which themselves have seen significant cuts in recent years.

"This is a decision that has not been taken lightly and if the financial situation wasn’t as dire as it was it wouldn’t have been implemented.

"When the decision was originally taken in 2013 – it was taken on the understanding at the time that austerity would have ended by the time the grant ran out. That would have allowed the proposal to be permanently dropped. (The Lib Dem/Tory Coalition Government promised us that austerity would end by 2015).

"It is obvious that austerity did not end by 2015 and that the council’s revenue budgets are under much more pressure now than they were in 2013.

"This decision adds to a long list of unpalatable decisions the council have had to ask the public to bear, that wouldn’t have even been contemplated; if Central Government had not insisted on its policy of extreme austerity for the last seven years.

"But until austerity actually ends – the council’s hands are tied on the matter."

Responding to the Conservative pledge to increase funding for pothole repairs, Coun Speding said: "Government grants haven't always been enough to cover all damage, plus the wear and tear of recent years.

"Nonetheless, highways asset management and maintenance are considered one of the council’s priorities."

And on the Tory propoal to fund a plastic bottles recycling scheme, he added: "The council has been looking at this matter and the costs of implementing such a scheme is being investigated, however these findings are not yet available."