Council tax bills in Burnham-On-Sea and Highbridge will rise by 16% this year after inflation-busting proposals were approved by Town Councillors last night (Monday, February 3rd).
Councillors voted in favour of a proposal to raise the council’s total budget from £615,343 last year to £718,211 this year. The increase will be 30p a week, or £15.44 extra per year, on Band D properties.
It will allow extra staff to be taken on by the Town Council to deal with events, admin, and forming a new Town Ranger position to lead the current grounds staff and to help with reducing dog fouling and litter.
Cllr Mike Facey, pictured at Monday’s meeting, who chairs the Town Council’s Finance and Resources Committee, said: “This council is united in its ambition to improve and increase the services it offers to benefit the community. This 20/21 budget put before the council is a start on that ambitious journey. The budget in previous years has been lean and the council appreciates that if it wants to learn from the successes of other ambitious towns then it must this coming year lay the foundations to enable improvement.”
“Let’s not forget that we have two towns with two distinct personalities and different needs. Two towns is not just a bigger parish, it’s often a doubling of resources like the provision of Christmas lights. We can’t just buy a longer string of lights, we have to buy two sets with two installations in two locations.”
“Budget planning is a lengthy, multi-faceted process with resource needs identified through observations and recommendations from officers, through the work of the council and its committees through discussions between councillors and their groups. The 20/21 budget proposals have evolved from continuous discussion since the new council was elected in May last year.”
“The council has come together in its ambition to be better prepared to do more in the coming years whilst being mindful to keep it increases in the precept to a minimum through reallocation of reserves and changes to working methods. All members have had every opportunity to meet with officers and each other to speak out and offer informed opinion. Collaborative working and cross-party agreement has subsequently resulted in a budget that has not required opposition and debate.”
Cllr Helen Groves said: “I have had a long-standing concern that the primary focus of this council is focussed on our budget being geared towards our building and staffing. When it comes to delivery of service and value to the public, there is very little capacity within these budgets for that. We are increasing the budget relating to staffing, and the function of the council to deliver better service, but there’s no capacity for that to happen.”
“Where is the value to the council tax payer who is struggling? We know people are increasingly struggling, we know that Sedgemoor are taking more enforcement actions because people cannot pay their current council tax bills, so it is incumbent on us to justify why we are making such a large increase and how we are going to measure the success.”
Cllr Phil Harvey added: “It is a diffcult budget, it is a difficult time. We have a great deal of uncertainty in the economy in general, in the local economy, in local government in terms of its structure and its forms and functions. So it’s a budget where we have a lot of uncertainty as to what we will face in the coming year and in those circumstances it’s best to be cautious and that we make sure we have flexibility in the budget to do things. The larger parts of the increase in budget are in staffing and that staffing increases capacity. We have a difficult local situation in that in my opinion the heart of the town centres are struggling. We have to try and respond to that – with active searching needed for government funds using a part-time project officer.”
Cllr Peter Clayton, who chairs the Town Council’s HR committee, told the meeting: “Until very recently, this council operated through a small staff team working out of one office doing what they have always done. This practice has shown us that minimal staff means minimal capacity for action.”
“The council has identified a need for change to up its game and has started to set its direction through its emerging corporate plan. We have employed a new part-time projects officer to help complete outstanding tasks, some of which are years late. The officer is helping to deliver a greater public engagement through events such as the VE day celebrations, the youth awards, and in assisting in promotion of the parish with our partners at Visit Somerset and BIARS.”
“A new part-time receptionist/admin assistant alleviates the admin burden previously carried by a single staff member and allows the senior officers to use their time more efficiently.”
“With greater engagement comes a greater volume of enquiries. The admin staff will manage our new website with improved communications and social media. If we create a town hall in a more accessible location we will see more people host more events and increase public services by being available for useful signposting. We are in discussions about the future of the Jaycroft Road courthouse which remains aesthetically a ‘criminal court’ and not a welcoming town hall.”
“In the towns, we receive complaints about dog fouling, beach and street litter, untidy green spaces, obstructed footpaths – we want to be proactive and take control to fix faults where we can, not spend time and money arguing over responsibility with another public body and getting nowhere.”
“A skilled Town Ranger who can lead our current grounds staff and help with campaigns to reduce fouling and litter could make a real difference to both towns. All staff from the clerk to the admin support work together to deliver the council’s resolutions. But if we want to keep moving forward and not just treading water, doing what we have always done, then we must take a more strategic approach to putting in place a staff team that can deliver.”
“With an uncertainty around local government reorganisation and the possibility of devolved functions we must be alert to staffing capacity and this budget permits us to continue that process.”
Burnham-On-Sea resident Alex Turco, pictured, told councillors during Monday’s meeting: “This meeting will be historic. You have before you a budget that will increase Band D council tax by £15.44 per year. This Council has not increased its share of the Council Tax by this much in monetary terms in one year, since its foundation over 45 years ago.”
“The purpose of this address is not necessarily to criticise the £103,000 increase in your budget proposed via the precept. I have attended many meetings of this Council over the years, and have been able to discuss with the Council’s officers on what and why this extra expenditure is proposed. My opinions on the proposals to increase staffing, events and economic development, are not the matter at hand.”
“Whilst this 16% increase in Council Tax might only be 30p per week for a Band D household, I would like the Council in its debate tonight to give the public attending and the 20,000 other residents of Highbridge and Burnham-On-Sea clear explanation of on what this extra money will be spent and why it is necessary.”
“I am sure the Council will welcome the opportunity tonight to be open about its plans, pursuant to the Council’s Strategic Pillar number one on engagement, visibility and transparency. This is because when a Council or Government increases any tax, the deal is that the individual reduction in financial choices and spending capability is in return for collective improvements greater than the sum of the parts. Therefore, my final request is that the Council should tell its residents how this tax rise will make their lives better, and how if we were sitting here in a year’s time, this Council would measure such improvement.”
14 councillors voted in favour of the increase to council tax, with one (Cllr Goves) against.