THURROCK Council Taxpayers will see a small drop in their bills after Conservatives sprang a coup on the ruling Labour group and scuppered their budget plans.
Labour were hoping to push through a spending programme of £118,396,000 at Tuesday’s full Council meeting but were ambushed by a Tory amendment which cut the bill by £145,000 and foiled Labour plans to axe spending on Police Community Support Officers and cut street cleaning.
They also forced through a cut in the Council Tax of 0.25 per cent rather than leaving it at its present level as Labour planned.
Conservative leader Garry Hague put forward the changes to Labour’s budget and won the support of three key independents, Cllrs Barry Palmer, John Purkiss and Stuart St Clair-Haslam after saying: “We believe Labour have made serious mistakes in proposing to cut key front line services that are highly valued by our residents.
“Whilst we support the need to make efficiency savings to deal with the financial crisis left by the Labour Government, the choices as to how, where and how the savings are made are fundamentally the responsibility of the Labour administration – they cannot blame the Coalition Government for where they have let the axe fall.
“In opposition we cannot re-engineer the Council’s entire budget, that’s something we will progress once back in control to ensure residents get the services they need at an affordable cost.
“But we are proposing an alternative budget tonight to protect key frontline services.”
Under the Tories’ plans the number of councillor portfolio holders will be cut from ten to eight, a voluntary scheme will be introduced for Council staff to work four instead of five days with a salary reduction, a scheme to give councillors £2,000 each to spend on their wards will be scrapped and it is likely that the running of Grays Beach – and possibly the Thameside Theatre – will be put out to private tender.
The Tories also plan to close and sell Thurrock’s Adult Community College and locate its courses to a new Further and Higher Education campus in Grays – though plans for that are hardly off the drawing board and its financing is currently under review.
The Conservatives also plan to keep all local waste bin collections weekly, though that had already been conceded by Labour leader John Kent in his outlining of the his budget.
He had said: “We have listened to what people have said and worked to find the money to not move to a fortnightly residual waste collection.”
That was probably the only concession he expected to make, but found himself outgunned by the Council’s floating independents as the vote on the Conservative amendments to the budget was won 24-21.
Cllr Kent derided the Conservative plans after they were forced through, saying: “On the Council Tax I said that we examined a quarter of one percent decrease and found that it would only save a Band D Council tax payer £2.79 a year whilst costing the council £145k.
“We do not believe this to be prudent or responsible in the current climate – it was this type of irresponsible budget setting that contributed to a six million pounds overspend last year.”
In his opening address, Cllr Kent had turned on the Tories, saying his group had inherited a mess.
He said: “This is a Budget that has been prepared in unprecedented circumstances, so let me speak plainly about the situation.
“The first thing to say is that this time last year we – cross party – agreed a budget for the current year that included nine million pounds worth of cuts. Then in June the Conservative led government announced £6 billion of in year public spending cuts. The effect of that on us here in Thurrock was to take £4m of promised funding – forcing us into bringing forward a package of savings to make up the shortfall. That is £13m taken out of the council’s budget in one year. Tonight we have to agree further savings of around £10m.
“This is a totally unprecedented situation. Some councils are fortunate to have sufficient reserves to help cushion the blow. That is not a luxury that we have.
“We inherited an economic situation here in Thurrock where £6m had been taken out of reserves – in one year – to prop up the budget. Had we carried on over spending as freely as our predecessors, at a rate of half a million pounds a month with just that £2m in reserves the Council would have run out of money by last September.”