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‘Bloody big bang for our buck’ or ‘another nail in the coffin’? Next year’s Redbridge Council budget approved

PUBLISHED: 11:45 28 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:49 28 February 2020

Redbridge Town Hall

Redbridge Town Hall

Archant

The leader of Redbridge Council insisted the local authority is getting “a bloody big bang for our buck” as the borough’s budget for the next financial year – including a 3.99pc increase in council tax – was approved last night.

At the budget meeting of Redbridge Council at Town Hall on Thursday, February 27, a fault in the electronic voting system meant votes were taken the old fashioned way by a show of hands.

The council's budget, which was approved by 47 votes to 11 with one abstention, sees £1million invested in street cleaning, £500k invested in tackling climate change and £10m into the borough's roads and highways.

A further £2.5m is planned to help create business hubs to support the borough's economy - a move which the council argues will provide flexible workspace at affordable rates to businesses, while securing a future income stream.

Social care for both adults and children will also benefit from £9million.

Redbridge Council argues it has been punching above its weight after being asked to save more than £180m over 10 years as a result of consecutive cuts to local government.

But Conservative councillors argue that higher levels of borrowing and greater spending mean Redbridge faces a funding gap of as much as £57million in five years time - a sum that could put the borough's financial future in jeopardy.

However, the Conservative group did not table any amendments detailing specific changes they would like to see made.

This year, to help fund public services, base council tax across the borough will rise by 1.99pc, with an additional 2pc precept to support social care.

That means someone living in the average Band D property will see their council tax rise by £63.67 a year - once you count the increase of £11.56 by the Greater London Authority - bringing the overall total to £1,690.04 a year.

Defending his administration's budget at the meeting, council leader Cllr Jas Athwal said the local authority was delivering outstanding results.

He said: "We are one of the lowest funded councils across the country.

"We are getting a bloody big bang for our buck - we're punching above our weight.

"We are recognised as one of the most financially prudent borough's in the country. We are effectively the best we can be."

Cllr Athwal added: "We have changed the way we deliver our services to become more commercial in our approach.

"We have sought inspiration from our partners and found new ways to help those in need of support.

"I make no apology for prioritising the services that protect our most vulnerable residents.

"This administration has shown strong leadership in not allowing the negativity of our critics to limit our ambition to improve the lives of the people of Redbridge.

"This is a budget that builds on the stable foundations we have put in place in successive budgets."

A number of opposition councillors expressed concerns that the independent auditors Redbridge Council uses to analyse its budget, Ernst and Young, had identified two "significant areas of risk".

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These are given as "financial planning and achievement of savings in the medium term" and "commercialisation and the establishment of companies".

Conservative Cllr Paul Canal told the meeting: "Overhanging this disastrous, incoherent budget is borrowing up from £150m when they came to power to an incredible £550m.

"Spending up from £240m to an unsustainable £850m.

"This is a budget from a clueless, leaderless administration that is heavy on debt and devoid of any coherent strategy.

"It is another nail in the coffin of sound finance in Redbridge.

"For the first time, a budget criticised by our auditors, this is a budget that will go down as the worst in the borough's history.

"A budget that neither I, nor any person who had the best interests of the residents of Redbridge at heart, could support."

A further bone of contention at the meeting was the inclusion of Redbridge Council's planned Late Night Levy in next year's budget.

The controversial scheme, which would involve charging businesses open past midnight an extra fee to pay towards tackling anti-social behaviour, has not yet been formally approved by the council due to an administrative oversight at the last full council meeting.

But Conservative councillor Ruth Clark said its inclusion in the budget being voted upon proved it was "a done deal" that "imposed a stealth tax on local businesses".

She asked the Labour administration to withdraw the Late Night Levy from the budget, but this did not happen.

It is projected to raise £74,000 and would be the least profitable Late Night Levy in England.

Numerous councillors from both parties also took the chance to thank the council's officers for their continued efforts to provide efficient services.

After the meeting, the leader of Redbridge's Conservative opposition, Cllr Linda Huggett, said her councillors could not vote for a "reckless, punishment budget that threatens the very future of this council" and argued that the administration wanted to increase borrowing despite the fact Boris Johnson's government had boosted central funding for Redbridge.

"The council is still spending £17 million more than they have and borrowing over half a billion pounds. By their own admission, in five years' time the Council's budget deficit will be £58 million.

"This level of debt is reckless and irresponsible," Cllr Hugget added.

"This budget is completely incoherent. No doubt that's because the Labour leader of the Council is no longer in control of his Labour group. No one is in charge, and it shows.

"Residents have had enough. We owe it to the people we represent to put up a fight against this reckless, punishment budget - and that is what we will do."

But Redbridge's Labour administration accused the Conservative group of being "missing in action" after they failed to offer any budget amendments and tabled a motion that attempted to end the debate on the budget after only 10 minutes.

The borough's deputy leader and cabinet member for finance, Cllr Kam Rai, said: "It's very easy for Redbridge Tories to turn up and take their allowance but they should have at least done the work.

"They can't even offer up an alternative at Budget Council and then want to go home after 10 minutes. Residents have to ask - what is the point of the Redbridge Conservatives?
"If they cannot come up with a single improvement on the budget it can only be that they are incapable or know in their hearts it is a budget they wish they could set."


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