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Cuts and higher council tax on the cards

A HUGE financial hit from the coronavirus pandemic has forced Stratford District Council to axe a number of projects.

Stratford District Council (44044424)
Stratford District Council (44044424)

A gym at Studley Leisure Centre, a business centre similar to Stratford’s Venture House and a fund helping property owners to bring empty houses back into use have all been dumped in a bid to save £1.4m.

The projects had all been allocated money from the council's reserves.

Unveiling its draft budget for next year, the council said it faced a £4.166m shortfall against last year’s budget, thanks largely to the pandemic. A huge drop in parking income was the single biggest factor.

Opposition councillors have already lambasted the draft budget, claiming it "could well make a bad situation worse".

Residents are likely be hit with a £5 rise in the district's share of council tax – the maximum allowable – while the council is also pushing ahead with unpopular green bin charges and increased parking fees.

While council leader Cllr Tony Jefferson said some of the more difficult financial decisions would not kick in until 2022-23, he revealed that a £75,000 annual contribution to tourism organisation Shakespeare’s England could be removed in 2021-22. The budget also suggests Stratford’s Venture House business centre could be closed by 2023-24 unless a third party steps in.

Elsewhere, long-term funding of the Ubus community transport service, the Stratford Shop Mobility Scheme and Stratford’s Tourism Information Centre is also in doubt.

Cllr Jefferson said: “Difficult decisions have to be made to set a balanced budget with limited central government funding, whilst maintaining general reserves of £2.5m. The current loss of revenue, combined with increased costs, is substantial and is estimated to be in the region of £2.6m this year alone.

“Although we have a long history of strong financial management, having been able to benefit from reserves, this year we are having to make difficult decisions with reductions in funding and rising costs. We are also fully committed to working closely with Warwick District Council to ensure we can continue to provide services in the future.

“This year’s budget is not a growth budget, as in previous years, but our budget proposals for the coming year ensure we are well placed to prepare for the district’s future as we work alongside our partners to respond to the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.

“The future beyond next year is increasingly uncertain. The implications of the continuing pandemic on the demand for our services, on the prospects of businesses and attractions within the district, and on the wellbeing and livelihoods of residents are uncertain. The proposed budget for this year is only the beginning of a journey that remains to be explored.”

At a time when many residents have also been hit financially by the pandemic, the prospect of a council tax hike, green bin charges and higher parking fees could prove a bitter pill to swallow. However, Cllr Jefferson insisted people were still getting value for money.

He also drew attention to internal cuts, while the budget report anticipates savings elsewhere – such as this year’s Shakespeare birthday celebrations. The joint working arrangements with Warwick are also expected to reduce costs.

One thing that has been retained in the budget is £1m of earmarked reserves for a compulsory purchase relating to Wellesbourne Airfield.

The opposition LibDem group was quick to attack this year’s proposed budget. Cllr Susan Juned said: “We recognise that these are difficult times and that council budgets are under pressure from the pandemic. Councils and many of the businesses that this district depends upon, such as hospitality and tourism, have not had the support from national government that they need.

"However, the budget that the local Conservatives are putting forward for the district council could well make a bad situation worse: they’re cutting back on the very things that help to support the district’s economy, so we will be challenging the direction that this budget is taking.”

She added: “Much more needs to be done to support our local businesses, the high streets and shops in market towns. It’s worth noting that in the Future High Streets Fund awards announced by the government in December, intended to help areas recover from the pandemic and create thousands of jobs, Leamington were granted £10m and Nuneaton £13.3m. Stratford district received nothing – its bid was rejected with the suggestion that it was lacking ‘scale and ambition’.

“At the same time, the Conservatives are proposing a big rise in parking charges in Stratford Town – hardly the way to encourage shoppers and visitors to come here. No wonder Stratford town centre seems to be steadily losing shops.”

The draft budget will go out for consultation on Monday and the final budget and council tax levels will be decided at a full council meeting on 8th February.

n Green bin charges: Page 10.

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