Labour controlled Bridgwater Town Council has set its budget for 2021-22 with the Leader vowing to maintain support to community projects, boost the reserves and fund continued growth as a council. The Labour group proposed that a budget of £1,077,316.12 with a precept demand of £878,814.22 be set for the financial year 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022. This amounts to a Band D equivalent of £2.04 a month dropping to £1.36 a month for Band A. Cllr Leader Brian Smedley said the modest rise was needed to maintain services and community facilities, offset Covid losses and build a reserve to protect against future problems while preparing the Council for the challenges of a Unitary upheaval. The Tories voted against and countered by proposing a series of cuts and reducing service delivery.
Town Council Leader Cllr Brian Smedley (Labour, Westover) said “The reason for this modest rise is simple, that we are an aspiring council and need to raise more money – we would do that anyway now that we have taken on more services, such as the cemeteries which used to be run by Sedgemoor, but its also important to note that the finances have also been hit by the Covid Emergency . This means we need also to build up reserves. Since the removal of the Government support grant, all councils have had to look at income generation – as Sedgemoor have – but of course at Town level we don’t have £50m to invest in properties to earn back rental from, so we have to make what we have work. And as responsible community landlords we’ve given our tenants rent holidays and we’ve also taken a hit because we can’t at the moment realise the full potential of the income from the town hall during this time. We can’t use the theatre for the pantomimes and stage shows Bridgwater is famous for and that also removes a vast chunk of our income. However, we have allowed the theatre to be used as a Testing Centre for Covid, which is an important resource for the community. Also, the council hasn’t been eligible for any of the of the business grants from Government as we are a local authority. “
Building up reserves
Cllr Smedley continued “Crucially now we need to build up the Council’s reserves again, as not only do we have several listed buildings that require maintenance over the next few years we don’t know what is on the horizon and we wouldn’t be forgiven for facing the unknown with an unknown bank balance. Furthermore, Somerset is on the cusp of a major change in local government and at this crucial time this is now needed – so we are responding to the town clerk’s advice to build up the reserves, to safeguard Council services in the future.
People maybe don’t realise that Bridgwater is one of the lowest precepted Town Councils per council tax ban in in the southwest and compares unfavourably in Somerset with other authorities such as Yeovil on £126 per band D – being twice our precept, yet the same size town and even smaller towns like Frome and Glastonbury significantly higher still. For an ambitious town our size we need to up that precept if we want to be more than Dibley Parish Council for ever.”
Maintain Community Support
The Leader added “Importantly, we need to maintain our community support and so we will keep that money flowing to the key areas we have always supported without any cuts–that’s community centres, and grants, funding for youth provision and support for arts, culture and heritage projects. The Town Council is responsible for the Blake Museum, the Arts Centre, the Town Hall, the Cemeteries and we have an increasing workforce-although still not on the scale of other town councils. But for us, maintaining that workforce and protecting jobs and services is crucial. This is why we are proposing a modest increase in precept. We have other major projects this year including Bridgwater Docks, Blake Garden Enhancements and all the other Cultural and Heritage projects that we continue to support.”
Tories Temper Tantrum
At the meeting the budget was passed by 10 votes to 5. The Conservative group had proposed an alternative budget and straight after the meeting their spokesman and newly elected Deputy Leader Cllr Diogo Rodrigues (Bridgwater Fairfax East,Con) took to his ToryStory blog to push his version of the meeting around social media calling out ‘Labour Tax Hikes” and seemingly without irony ‘the struggle is difficult enough’
Cllr Smedley replied “We looked at the Conservative proposed budget but it was totally and I suspect purposefully unrealistic knowing they wouldn’t have to implement it. The Conservatives proposed cutting money from community centres and withdrawing funding for toilets, the art centre, twinning, the Eastover clock project and in fact the entire Hamp community centre project budget. Sadly, in this Conservative budget the figure proposed for reserves was under the required minimum of 3 months of council expenditure, that would give the Council a decent cushion in these covid times. So, we needed to take the tough choice to raise the level of reserves and at the same time start to lift Bridgwater’s low precept rate off the ground so that we can genuinely be a growing council – the important thing of course is that all the money we raise goes BACK INTO THE COMMUNITY. I’m sure Cllr Rodrigues is happy with the way his new Tory friends are managing the national economy and the covid response and I expect he was first to object when they cut back on school meals recently….oh no, he wasn’t, i remember.”
Cllr Smedley continued “Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the Tories are trying to scare people with stories of large tax rises but this is not the case and their argument doesn’t do them any favours when clearly everyone knows that they didn’t support the existence of a town council in the first place and so their hastily put out news story is designed just to stir up trouble instead of working with us to build up the strength of the town council, so that when we come out of this lockdown, we come out of it with a stronger town council. We’re asking people for the equivalent of less than a pint of beer a month to help fund their own community. I think that’s fair enough – they’d be giving up 2 pints in Frome!”
Support for Budget
Cllr Kathy Pearce,(Labour, Westover) the Deputy Leader said “Our precept is so low. In monetary terms it is a low amount. We need to raise the necessary money to function legally and provide services to the community”
Cllr Graham Granter (Labour, Fairfax West) also supported the budget saying “The Town Council has taken over a lot of services that the district and county council did not want to carry on delivering to Bridgwater and while these conservative councils have been reducing their services we the council tax payers in Bridgwater have not seen any reduction in their payments! As a town council we had to make a decision to either fund the services that the other Councils dropped or let them close.”
Cllr Li Gibson (Labour, Westover) said “The small rise in the council payment is necessary for us to fund and support community projects and established Bridgwater Community organisations. It is vital that we move forward with the right amount of support to help with the adaptation to these covid times and beyond”
Cllr Glen Burrows (Labour, Eastover) said “In this difficult time, Bridgwater Town Council will continue to support local businesses and voluntary organisations as best it can, as well as maintaining a financial reserve to enable us to deal with an unforeseen crisis. We believe the people of Bridgwater will support a modest increase of between 25p and 50p a week as a way of achieving this.”