Probably one of the least welcome bits of paper to land on doormats up and down the country is the annual Council Tax bill. A quick glance at social media around the time bills arrive is all the reminder we as Councillors need.
At Suffolk County Council, the Conservative administration only increases Council Tax when it’s absolutely necessary.
This year, setting our budget was much more difficult. Like everyone at home, and businesses and organisations across Suffolk, we are having to pay more for the goods and services we use. We are not immune to the huge inflationary pressures that followed the pandemic and were made even worse by Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
In the Summer of last year, we feared a ‘budget gap’, this the difference between what we have and what we need, upwards of £50 million. Fortunately, in no small part due to the lobbying efforts of Suffolk’s Conservative MPs, the money we received from the Government is more than expected. We still faced a gap but it was not as large.
In our budget approved last Thursday, we made savings of £15 million. Many of these relate to changing the way we work, what we call transformation, while some related to staffing, including reducing the contribution we make to council staff’s pensions. They won’t see a reduction in pension but because our fund is well managed, we can pay in less. Importantly, none of these savings will reduce any of the services we provide.
In fact, we allocated more money to key services; an additional £36 million for Adult Social Care and another £13.5 million for Children’s Services. Alongside this, was another £500,000 for Highways Maintenance, £110,000 for Tree Management, and £45,000 more per year for Suffolk’s Citizen’s Advice Bureaus. All of this, despite the challenges we face, contributed to a net increase of £62 million being spent on our services, taking our total budget to £688 million.
To achieve this, without reducing services, we needed to increase Council Tax. As Conservatives this is something we never do lightly. Our Budget Consultation, to which over 2,600 residents responded, told us how important Adult and Children’s Care is to local people. It also told us that given the challenges we face - namely more people needing our help and rising costs - that many of you accepted Council Tax would need to increase.
Therefore, we took the difficult decision to increase the general part of Council Tax by 1.99% and the Adult Social Care element by 2%. This is below the maximum increase open to us and means that a Band B property, the most common type of property in Suffolk, will pay an extra 86p per week from April.
As Conservatives, we never forget that the money we collect in Council Tax is your money and we always ensure it is invested well. We know that Adult Care and Children’s Care, particularly Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, are your priorities. They are ours too. Such is the need for these two areas that 75p in every £1 we spend now goes on people’s services.
Everything else, from roads and pavements, to Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service, Trading Standards, and our work to protect the environment comes out of the remaining 25p.
We know value for money is important too. We work hard to keep the amount of money we spend on staffing and administration down, in fact Suffolk is nearly the lowest spending County Council in this respect, so that we can ensure more money goes directly on the services we all use.
This year, for the third year in a row, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats tried to increase Council Tax bills by even more. However, for the third year in a row your Conservative led County Council rejected their attempts to hike bills even further. We know that many people are struggling with rising bills and Council Tax is just another bill on that pile.
We will always invest where it’s needed but our first instinct is never to reach for your pockets. We will continue to innovate, work differently, reduce overheads, and cut administrative costs so that the bills you pay are the best value possible.
Column by Councillor Richard Rout, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance and Environment.