On Valentine’s Day evening (yes, we councillors clearly need to get out more!) Guildford Borough Council met to discuss and approve the budget for 2012-13. The two key points on the agenda for me were the overall budget and the proposed 1.9% council tax increase.
During budget discussions I took the opportunity to speak and include the text of my speech below. You can find out more about the Lib Dems on GBC’s response to the budget at the Guildford Lib Dems website:
Thank you Madam Mayor.
This budget comes after a prolonged period of economic difficulty which although it is showing signs of let up it is still presenting significant challenges. With this in mind I would like to focus my comments on the impact of our decisions tonight on the people whose needs and concerns should be central to our discussion on the budget before us – those living and working in Guildford Borough.
To quote the social commentator Jim Wallis from the US, budgets are a moral document that tell you about what and who are most important to a family, nation or in our case this council. This council’s commitment to protecting its most vulnerable residents has been made clear by its commitment to providing a hardship fund help mitigate the impact of long term changes to Council Tax and for that I am deeply grateful and hope that we will be able to ensure that similar provision continues to be made available over the coming years. I also hope that as the impact of changes to the benefits system and the economic climate continues to evolve this council will continue to respond to the needs of local residents both on our own and with partner organisations.
One budgetary change that I would highlight as not giving the right impression of our commitments is the new pricing structure for our community transport service. For example, we have gone from a situation where a single journey of 15 miles costs £5.20 to a new cost of £10. While I appreciate that this is less than a cost of a taxi to me it exhibits a lack of understanding that many of those having to travel that distance will be doing so to visit loved ones in hospital or a care home and will want to do so two, three times a week if not more. By making this significant increase they will no longer be able to do so because a fee of £20 per visit will simply be unaffordable. What does this say about our attitude towards disabled and older people? Changes may need to be made to this service but such a large step increase is unacceptable.
It is also with a heavy heart that I note the proposal for a Council Tax rise of 1.9%, with Surrey County Council approving a similar rise just this week. I recognise that the council’s resources are under growing pressure. However, I believe that we need to recognise that household budgets across the borough are also under significant pressure. To put it in to context Thames Water estimate an average increase to household bills of around 5.5%. Energy bills are expected to continue to rise too. Public sector pay has been frozen since 2009 and will likely remain so for another two years. Private sector employees are also seeing minimal wage increases if at all.
Higher income households are likely to be able to absorb the rise. Many lower income households, although not all, will be protected from the increase by the benefits they receive. The households that are likely to struggle most are middle earners whose budgets are already pushed to the very limit.
To put a human face to it I had a poinent reminder recently of how difficult it can be from a single mum of two in my ward who is not eligble for any support and explained that she currently struggles month to month to meet the needs of her family and pay her bills including Council Tax. This Council Tax rise will almost certainly mean that she is no longer able to meet those needs and will face difficult decisions over what essentials to cut to ensure they do meet. She will not be the only one.
In these difficult times we should be recognising the financial sacrifices being made by our residents. We be should be showing that we as a council are also tightening our belts and we should not be increasing our council tax keeping service cost increases to a minimum. I will therefore not be voting in favour of the budget before us. Nor will I be voting in favour of the Council Tax increase and ask other councillors to consider standing in support of the people of Guildford and not agreeing this Council Tax rise.