Herefordshire Council has approved a 4.99 per cent rise in the county’s council tax, but by the narrowest of margins.

A meeting of all councillors today (February 10) voted 24 in favour of the proposed budget as a complete package, with 22 against and one abstention, the speaker Coun Sebastian Bowen. Six councillors appeared to be absent from the vote.

While all Independents for Herefordshire and Green councillors, who together form a minority coalition controlling the council, voted for the taxing and spending plan, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and True Independents all voted against.

An amendment on how an additional government grant of £680,000 should be spent in the county was narrowly defeated by 23 votes to 21.

Hereford Times:

Cabinet member for finance Coun Liz Harvey earlier told the meeting that with no alternative budgets having been presented by opposition parties, “the budget proposals before us are the only ones on the table, and have gone through rigorous examination”.

“Despite the challenges, the council proposes to spend more money on delivering services to Herefordshire’s residents than in 2022,” she said.

Leader of the council and Independents for Herefordshire councillor David Hitchiner said Conservative-controlled councils around the country are also “taking up the Government’s offer” to increase council tax by the permitted 4.99 per cent, “as local authority finance is not looking to be any better in the future”.

Green Party group leader Coun Ellie Chowns commended the “responsible forward-looking strategic budget, in difficult circumstances made harder by central Government decisions”.

But Conservative group leader Coun Jonathan Lester said the increases were “not justified”.

He said the “true cost” of cancelling the western bypass and southern link road, a decision made by the incoming coalition administration two years ago, was over £22.4 million, “which the council tax payer has nothing to show for”.

Meanwhile since 2019 the council’s children’s services budget has gone from £27 million to a proposed £50.8 million, while since 2020/01 the council has drawn £22.6 million from its own reserves.

“After all this, there must be something to show for it,” he said. Without that, “many council tax payers will not see the 4.99 per cent increase as justified, which is why I cannot support it”.

Cabinet member for transport Coun John Harrington said neighbouring Conservative-run authorities are also taking advantage of all, or nearly all, the permitted council tax rise.

Even with this, “I have no idea how we, or whoever else is here, will manage to provide an appropriate budget for the residents of Herefordshire if we don’t get a change at national level,” he said.

True Independents group leader Coun Bob Matthews said he feared the “precepts” yet to be added onto the final council tax figure for police, fire and parish council services would also be “very large”.

These on top of the proposed main tax rise “will place a horrendous burden on the county’s taxpayers, without bringing the improvements in infrastructure we need”, he said.

Liberal Democrats group leader Coun Terry James claimed the proposed budget was “not achievable” given that savings in children’s services were proposed to be made replacing agency workers with permanent staff, “which the council has been try to do for years, when the department had a better reputation”.

“We will fall millions of pounds short in that area,” he said.

Coun Harvey accused Coun James of “wringing your hands in a Cassandra-like fashion” over the children’s services issue.

Chief executive Paul Walker earlier told the meeting that a report due from a government-appointed commissioner investigating the council’s troubled children’s services department “is taking longer than we thought” but would be released by the Government shortly.