‘Dangerous times’ for councils

Lincolnshire County Council leader Martin Hill (Con) ENGEMN00120130731130031
Lincolnshire County Council leader Martin Hill (Con) ENGEMN00120130731130031

“We feel very aggrieved - these are dangerous times for local government.”

That was the message from Lincolnshire County Council leader Coun Martin Hill as he expressed anguish at the scale to which shire authorities such as his own are being squeezed in their Government support grant by comparison with more heavily populated authorities.

For 2016-17, the support grant will be £70.35million – a lower figure than was expected – prompting a controversial proposal by council chiefs to increase council tax by 3.95 per cent, the maximum permissible.

At a media briefing on Wednesday, the leader complained: “Inner London boroughs, for instance, will proportionately be receiving twice as much as us - we think the Government has got it wrong.

“Nothing is impossible but I don’t see how we can achieve the costs savings we are expected to make.

“We are shouldering too high a burden, and we will continue to lobby in the hope of a rethink.”

The county council’s total budget for 2016-17 will be £476million, of which 50 per cent will be met by council tax income.

Of the remainder, 22 per cent will come from business rates, 23 per cent from Government support grant, three per cent from other grants and five per cent from reserves.

On a wryer note, Coun Hill suggested that Lincolnshire should declare itself a ‘foreign port’ and seek monies from the Government’s overseas aid budget.

“That’s an area where Whitehall expenditure is increasing,” he declared. “Also, budgets on national defence and policing seem to be exempt from any cuts.”

Despite his gripe, the leader of the Conservative-controlled council said he continued to support the Government’s ongoing commitment to ensure the country lives within its means.

The county council tax increase faced by householders for next year will be between £20 and £100 depending on the property band. For Band D, it will be £43.

However, the total could be even higher, depending whether borough and district councils also decide to raise their precepts.

Because these authorities do not carry the financial burden of adult care responsibilities, the maximum increase allowable for them would be only two per cent.

If they were mindful to increase their precepts by a higher amount, they would be obliged to put the matter to a referendum.

For the third year running, the county council will also raid its fast-dwindling reserves – so-called ‘rainy day’ money – to help provide a financial cushion.

“We are buying time until we can reconfigure services,” said portfolio holder for finance Coun Marc Jones. “Rather that than slash and burn.”

○ The proposal to raise council tax by 3.95 per cent will not be confirmed until a meeting of the full council on February 19.

Before that there will be extensive consultations, including at least one public meeting.

The issues will also come under the spotlight at a meeting of the executive at county hall on January 5.