CAERPHILLY County Borough Council’s budget for 2023/24 – which includes a 7.9% rise in council tax – has been approved by councillors.
Council leader Sean Morgan said it was the “most difficult budget” the council had ever faced.
At a special council meeting on Thursday February 23, Cllr Morgan said the cost of running council services had risen by £55 million in one year.
He added: “We’re not immune from the rise in inflation, escalating energy costs, and rising demand.”
Council tax increase criticised
The rise in council tax had been criticised by opposition councillors. Leader of the Plaid Cymru group, Cllr Lindsay Whittle, described it as “unacceptable” during a cost-of-living crisis.
At the meeting Cllr Whittle, said: “People out there cannot afford it.” He added: “We are going to drive more and more vulnerable people into seeking additional help which again will increase our costs.”
The council’s public consultation revealed that 74% of respondents wanted a lower council tax increase than proposed, or no increase at all.
Independent group leader, Cllr Kevin Etheridge, said: “The ruling group has not listened to the residents. Out of 271 responses to the council tax 35% did not support any increase while 39% supported a lower increase – so how have they listened to the residents?”
Plaid Cymru councillor for Hengoed, Teresa Parry, described the increase as a “disgrace”, as people are already struggling.
Cabinet member for finance, Cllr Eluned Stenner, said it was a “balanced, measured and a fully considered budget”.
The Labour councillor for New Tredegar added: “It’s important for us all to get that in real terms our current levels of council tax remain amongst the lowest in Wales.”
Amendments put forward
At the meeting, Plaid Cymru councillor Gary Enright put forward an amendment to the budget, which proposed: 0% council tax increase, no cuts, and to “find any shortfalls through existing available funds” – meaning the council’s £233 million in reserves.
Cllr Enright, who represents Llanbradach, said: “The reserves are not my money, they are not your money, they are public money to be used when the public needs.”
Cllr Greg Ead, of Penyrheol, supported the amendment and said: “Six million can easily be found in the reserves.”
This amendment was rejected, with 22 voting in favour and 40 voting against.
Cllr Sean Morgan said: “I’m afraid the reserves are not the answer people believe them to be. They can only be used once.”
He added: “Let me make it clear. There isn’t a person in this chamber that doesn’t want to reduce the burden on our residents.”
Deputy leader, Cllr Jamie Pritchard, criticised the opposition for not being able to pinpoint what section of the reserves the money should come from.
Independent councillor Nigel Dix also put forward an amendment of 2.9% council tax increase – a reduction of 4% in comparison to the 7.9% that was approved.
This amendment was also rejected, with 20 voting in favour of it and 41 against.
Cuts to services
In addition to the council tax increase, the budget – which totals £438 million – also includes cuts to various services, including:
- Markham community leisure centre’s cut of £10,000, which is to be spread out across three years.
- Tourism venues to lose £250,000.
- Funding from the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) will be reduced by 30%.
- Sports pitch fees will be raised by 12%.
- Community centres will have to fund four hours of caretaker hours, this will be rolled out over three years from October 2023.
- Money for music lessons to be reduced by £42,600.
- Withdrawal of subsidy for the Blackwood to Ystrad Mynach
- Rail Link bus service – saving of £120,000.
Labour councillors Lisa Phipps and Carl Cuss both raised concerns about the effects the cuts to caretaker funded hours would have on community centres.
Cllr Cuss, who represents Twyn Carno, said: “We all know once community centres tap into their reserves they start to decline and they will end up closing.”
Cabinet member with responsibility for leisure services, Cllr Chris Morgan, said £405,000 had been spent on upgrading community centres over the past five years.
He added: “They need to become self-sufficient and they will need to be supported more by their communities.”
Plaid Cymru councillor for Llanbradach Colin Mann criticised the increase in sports fees, he said: “Twelve percent is way above inflation and way above affordability. You are putting extra pressure on these clubs.”
Cllr Morgan said the council had listened to residents as they reduced the sports fees increase from 20% to 12%.
Plaid Cymru councillor John Roberts criticised the council’s decision to ask schools to pay towards their energy bills.
Cabinet member for education, Cllr Carol Andrews, said funding for schools had increased by 8% this year.
Cabinet member for housing, Cllr Shayne Cook said: “Even though some members tonight won’t support this budget we all should be united in our disapproval of this current Tory government whose policies of austerity and mismanagement of the economy has led to a decade of devastating budget cuts, inflationary pressures which has affected not only Caerphilly but councils across the UK.”
Prior to the final decision, Plaid Cymru councillor Donna Cushing said: “Vote with your conscience and not with your group.”
The budget for 2023/24 was approved with 44 councillors voting in favour and 22 against.