Tax increases on the way after Harborough council's 'toughest budget for years' is swept through on a tide of anger and emotion - here's what happened

It’s currently projected the council will have to splash almost £9 million from its reserves by 2024-25 just to stay afloat
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Tens of thousands of people across Harborough will have to pay more council tax, more to park their cars and more to have their green bins emptied in 2021-22.

Residents and families will be hit by the 'triple whammy' as the cash-strapped district council’s toughest budget for years was swept through last night (Monday) on a tide of anger and emotion.

Sparks flew and verbal punches were exchanged at a virtual full council meeting as councillors clashed over how to tackle the devastating impact of the unprecedented Covid crisis on authority finances.

Harborough District Council's headquarters.Harborough District Council's headquarters.
Harborough District Council's headquarters.

And when it came to the crunch 20 councillors backed the get-tough blueprint and 10 voted against as the show of arms split down Conservative-Liberal Democrat lines after over two hours of heated debate.

The budget was rubberstamped as it’s emerged that it’s currently projected the council will have to splash almost £9 million from its “warchest” reserves by 2024-25 just to stay afloat.

Cllr James Hallam, the council’s deputy leader and finance lead, told last night’s tension-charged showdown: “Our reserves in 2021 stand at £11.5 million.

“We have not recklessly ramraided our reserves.

“We are in a better place than a lot of other councils across the country because of our prudence over the years.”

He said they had faced a “very difficult” year because of the shattering coronavirus pandemic which has hit local authorities all over England in the pocket.

“But we are still able to present a good well-balanced budget for 2021-22,” insisted Cllr Hallam.

Harborough council was staring down the barrel at a crippling £4 million shortfall for the next year, he said.

But they are slashing that huge amount by hiking car parking charges in Market Harborough up to £1.50 for up to two hours – a 50 per cent hike from £1 for drivers.

The fee is jumping from £1.50 to £2 for up to three hours, from £2.50 to £3 for up to four hours and from £6 to £7.50 for over four hours in all council-run car parks in the town.

The council is also upping the Council Tax by £5 for a Band D property, stepping it up to £172.97 for the year.

And in arguably the most controversial move of all the authority is also slapping another £15 on the annual green bin garden waste fee to make it £55. That’s an increase of almost 40 per cent.

Council chiefs aim to fork out £13.6 million on capital schemes such as new CCTV security, leisure and open spaces, improving Lutterworth town centre and helping to accommodate homeless people.

Spitting fire, furious Cllr Mark Graves, a Liberal Democrat councillor for Broughton Astley, told the meeting: “This budget is the financial equivalent of a boat heading rapidly towards the rocks.

“I’m not pleased to see some knee jerk reactions such as green bin charges going up by almost 40 per cent.

“This at a time when many people are struggling to pay their bills.

“Pay more – and get less.”

Lutterworth West Labour councillor Paul Beadle said: "This is the third in a three-pronged financial attack on the residents of this district.

“We have had the green bin tax hike and the rise in car park charges - and now this council tax increase.

“At the start of this pandemic the Government told local authorities to spend whatever they needed to spend - and the Government would cover the costs. That has not happened.

“I would have liked to have seen this council’s leader and cabinet demand that the Government keep its word, rather than making more demands of our residents."

Hitting back swiftly, Cllr Paul Bremner said the Covid crisis had “impacted on the whole nation” as hard-up councils bled serious income while having to spend far more.

The Conservative member for Lubenham said most people told a council survey that they backed the small Council Tax rise to maintain vital services.

“This is a balanced budget because an unbalanced budget would be illegal,” stressed Cllr Bremner.

But Cllr Phil Knowles, who leads the council’s Liberal Democrats, retorted: “This budget is a fingers crossed and hope budget!

“Issues have been building up here for years.

“The budget is being propped up by a huge use of our reserves.

“We are facing huge car parking increases while footfall into Market Harborough and Lutterworth town centres has dropped beyond all recognition.

“Businesses are teetering on the brink.

“This budget is heaped full of concerns for me.”

Reacting angrily, council leader Cllr Phil King declared: “We are in a strong position and we have a low level of debt.

“This is a balanced budget.

“We are seeking meetings with the Government to win more support, we have written to our MPs, we have lobbied – there’s not much more we can do.

“We are still managing to invest in fighting environmental crime, fly-tipping, litter and waste – issues that are very important to our residents.

Cllr King added: “We are supporting disabled people in their own homes and we are investing in our housing support services and temporary accommodation.

“This isn’t a perfect budget.

“I don’t like increasing council tax – it goes against all my natural instincts.

“But the Government doesn’t fund councils in our area fairly and that’s not right.”

The Harborough Mail has been told today that the council’s huge cash reserves, built up over 14 years, “will decline from £11.59 million in 2021-22 to £2.82 million in 2024-25” amid the pandemic.

“However, that is before phase two and three of our change management process later this year and is subject to changes in Government funding, ie contributions from replacement for New Homes Bonus - which we have assumed is zero,” said the council.