Council tax rises, Covid recovery and visions for the future: Here's what happened at Warwickshire County Council's vital budget meeting

In these extraordinary times, councillors have come to an agreement on decisions that will affect everyone in the county
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Warwickshire County Council agreed its new budget at last night's meeting. Here is our Local Democracy Reporter David Lawrence's comprehensive report on the decision that affect all residents.

A budget has been set by Warwickshire County Council with the leader calling it the basis for a new future while her deputy admitted it was like no other he had ever worked on.

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Alternative budgets were put forward by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens but these failed to win support from the controlling Conservative administration as they also announced a 2.99 per cent hike in council tax.

Shire Hall, Warwickshire County Council's headquarters.Shire Hall, Warwickshire County Council's headquarters.
Shire Hall, Warwickshire County Council's headquarters.

Council leader Cllr Izzi Seccombe (Con, Stour and the Vale) told yesterday's (Monday's) full council meeting: “This budget, which has been many months in coming together, is the basis for a new future. I want a council with hope, ideas and visions of a future and a budget that wraps around every one of those words. This is a budget that will deliver all of that.

“I want a future that is going to be bright for the residents of Warwickshire and that’s what you have with the Conservative budget.”

Deputy leader Cllr Peter Butlin (Con, Admirals and Cawston), the portfolio holder for finance and property, explained the figures and how Covid had impacted on the calculations.

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He said: “The financial consequences to the county are considerable and the budget and the MTFS [medium term financial strategy] set last year have been severely impacted and now need major refresh.

“Before Covid, the Warwickshire economy was strong and thriving, unemployment was low at less than two per cent. Now unemployment is already around five per cent and likely to increase to eight or ten per cent once the furlough scheme stops.

“Despite the uncertainties we have stuck with our approach to being prudent and responsible with the council’s finances and taxpayers money. We have built our budget to create a balanced five-year position with sufficient reserves to further offset risk and retain flexibility for recovery through our investment funds.”

Cllr Butlin explained that extra funding for adult social care would come through council tax - one per cent this year and two per cent the following year.

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He added: “So for the year 21/22 we intend to increase the council tax by 2.99% in total which represents an increase of 86p per week on a band D property.

“This is like no other budget I have ever been involved in - we have to be flexible to allow us to act to all of what the Covid and the post Covid crisis can throw at us.

“Economic recovery is key to getting people back on their feet and the county thriving again. New jobs and opportunities will appear, accelerated by the stimulus we are providing and it is our duty to make sure residents can take those opportunities. Our budget is about recovery, I have no aplogies for that."

ENVIRONMENT: What about climate change?

Calls to spend more money on climate change initiatives have been side-stepped by Warwickshire County Council’s controlling Conservative group with one councillor saying there were more important priorities.

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In setting out their prospective budgets for the year Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all highlighted a need to spend more on environmental matters.

Cllr Helen Adkins, Leamington Willes, leader of Labour group at WCC, said: “We will provide a £4m fund to invest in implementing the priorities flowing from the climate change task and finish groups and standing committee and there will be a new focus on preserving the benefits of lockdown on climate change e.g. the improvement of air quality in our towns. Our objective is for the county council to be carbon free by 2025 and Warwickshire as a county by 2030.”

But during the budget-setting full council meeting, Cllr Clare Golby (Con, Arbury) said Labour’s figures failed to add up and that many Warwickshire residents had other concerns at the moment.

She said: “The Labour motion as written says they aim to make Warwickshire carbon free, not carbon neutral - there’s a very big difference in that. If you are aiming for carbon free then you are going to need more than £4m because you are literally going to need to go into everyone's home, change all the gas boilers and ban cars from the road. You are probably going to need to clear all the residents out of Warwickshire.

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“It is also quite telling that they have £4m going into climate change and yet only £1.5m going into Covid recovery for business. I would prioritise them very differently. As a councillor I’ve yet to be contacted by anybody who is more concerned by their carbon footprint than their ability to get and retain work.

“I am one of those people who is unemployed as part of Covid and struggling to get a job. I would rather the money go into helping people like me find a job than currently cutting my carbon footprint because I don’t think that is an everyday priority for everyday people.”

Cllr Jonathan Chilvers (Green, Leamington Brunswick) explained that green initiatives and jobs could go hand in hand.

He said: “There is no conflict between moving towards a clean green economy and job creation.

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“In Warwickshire we are in an excellent position to be able to create jobs and get people into work whilst also investing in a future that protects us for future generations. We always have to look for that win-win.

“Keeping people in work is crucial but we have to do it in a way that is safe and clean and environmentally friendly for not just this year or next year but for decades to come.”

MENTAL HEALTH: Does the budget address this?

The leader of Warwickshire County Council’s Liberal Democrats said Conservative plans to tackle the mental health crisis do not go far enough.

Speaking at the budget-setting full council meeting, Cllr Jerry Roodhouse (Lib Dem, Paddox) said a greater emphasis on support and on young people and their families was needed and a Lib Dem budget amendment called for a £4m investment to help tackle the problems brought on by Covid.

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Cllr Roodhouse said: “Clearly the main message from our amendment is putting mental health support and young people and families first.

“The Children’s Commissioner in her recent report made it clear that there needs to be a rocket boost in funding for children’s mental health funding. If you speak to people in the multi agency safeguarding hub (MASH), from September to November there was a 1,647 per cent increase in users going through there.”

In their budget statement, the Conservatives recognised the need for help without putting a figure on it.

The document said: “We will bring forward proposals for a dedicated community wellbeing fund to sit within the overall preventing vulnerability investment fund. This will support our outcome that communities and individuals are supported to be safe, happy and independent.

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“A key priority for our response and recovery from the pandemic is around local mental health support in our communities, ranging from support for children and young people to younger adults with autism and mental health needs, including those who self-harm, to services for older people with dementia.”

Cllr Roodhouse added: “The pressures being placed on children and families going forward through this pandemic is something we need to invest in. So I partly welcome where the Conservatives have talked about it but talk is what it is. What we are saying is put money and people first.

“The NSPCC has also said that when lockdowns have eased, they have seen their numbers increase so want to make sure we bring that funding forward.

“What we are trying to do in our amendment is actually put mental health and families first and push that message through to the administration for them to take that on board. We need to see the family support workers increased because their helpline saw a 317 per cent increase.”

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The Conservatives did make a last minute change to their own budget, reinstating funding for the domestic abuse service following discussions with Green group leader Cllr Jonathan Chilvers (Green, Leamington Brunswick).

During the budget-setting meeting, Cllr Chilvers said: "Taking £100,000 out of the £500,000 domestic abuse investment seems absolutely the wrong thing to do when we know that domestic abuse has been a rising issue over lockdown. So I would really urge the administration to look again at that cut."