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Brent residents to pay average of £100 more council tax as budget set against ‘bleak economic picture’

Residents of a North London borough will pay, on average, around £100 more in council tax next year, with the economic picture being described as ‘bleak’. Brent Council’s budget has gone through unamended, despite both opposition parties tabling a fully-costed alternative budget, with some services facing cuts to plug an £8m gap.

Council budgets shape how it will spend taxpayers’ money over the next financial year. The administration had already warned residents that the seriousness of the financial position it is facing ‘can’t be understated’, having made roughly £210m worth of cuts since 2010.

Council taxes will increase by 4.99 per cent, the maximum amount allowed without a referendum, meaning an average ‘Band D’ property in Brent will be paying £2,036.05 per year. The budget also reveals cuts to an adult day centre and a 7.7 per cent rise in council rents, leaving the average family in a three-bedroom property paying £159.60 a week.

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There will also be an increase to business rates and below inflation increases to fees and charges, such as pest control, garden waste collection, hosting events, and parking.

The budget was waived through by councillors at Thursday’s (February 29) Budget and Council Tax Setting meeting. Brent Council’s cabinet member for finances, Cllr Shama Tatler, described balancing the books this year as ‘the hardest task yet’.

The State of Council Finances

Addressing the chamber, Cllr Tatler said: “The seriousness of the council’s financial position today cannot be understated. With an expensive adult social care bill as well as soaring levels of homelessness leaving us with a financial pressure worth £13m, balancing our budget and preserving essential services this year has been the hardest task yet.”

She added: “The grim reality is that more and more local authorities are being pushed to the financial brink, with 1 in 5 councils anticipating that they may issue a Section 114 notice (in essence, declaring bankruptcy), effectively ending all spending beyond a bare legal minimum.”

Pointing to a multi-million-pound funding gap, Cllr Tatler claims government grants have ‘failed to meet the severe cost and demand pressures’ that many council’s are facing. Inflation, decreased government funding, and a growing demand – particularly in housing services where it overspent by £13m last year, as well as children’s services and adult social care – has made delivering local services increasingly difficult.

The most visible cuts are likely to come from the Adult Day Care services – specifically the Millennium Day Centre, which provides facilities for adults with physical and learning difficulties. Staff and buildings are the biggest expenses for councils, this could also mean the sale of assets and staff redundancies.

Where is Money Being Spent?

However, the council has committed £3m to continue funding Brent Works and Brent Start projects, which provides opportunities for residents to develop new skills and connect people with job, as well as £10m to support private renters living in poor conditions.

Brent is also spending £44m creating 427 new school places for children with special educational needs (SEN); £900k supporting children and young people during the school holidays; and £4.2m on upgrading leisure centres.

The one-year settlements handed out by the central government were described by Cllr Tatler as ‘a sticking-plaster approach’ to council finances, which hampers the local authority’s medium to long-term financial planning. Referencing Conservative Lord Norman Lamont, council leader, Cllr Muhammed Butt, described many of the budget choices as like ‘choosing between disastrous and the unpalatable’.

Cllr Butt said: “Every council in this country is walking a tightrope. Never before has it been so perilous. […] this is a council under duress but it is a council that is surviving, and delivering in spite of cuts, not because of them. [The] budget is proof that you can match realism and responsible financial management with the radical desire to do more. This is a budget that protects frontline services at its core.”

The Labour budget passed unchanged after amendments tabled by both opposition parties were rejected by the council. Below is a summary of the proposed amendments put forward by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, ultimately none of which will be adopted.

Conservative Budget Amendments:

The Conservatives are the largest opposition party within the council, with five councillors out of the total 57. The group claimed its budget provides investment for the local towns, protects the greenbelt and delivers for residents by ‘ending a culture of waste’ by the administration.

This Conservative group budget amendment puts forward an alternative which invests in our towns, protects our beautiful greenbelt for future generations and delivers on the priorities of residents, ending a culture of waste at the Civic Centre. Conservative leader, Cllr Suresh Kansagra, claimed the country is ‘economically, financially, employment-wise in a better place today than in 2010’.

Together, London council’s have to make up a £400m shortfall in order to continue delivering the same levels of service. Despite this, the Conservatives proposed a lower council tax increase of 3.99 per cent, which would result in a revenue loss of £1.5m.

As well as a cut to council tax, the party tabled plans to; give residents one-hour free parking to help increase footfall for local businesses; remove two cabinet roles and merge the departments; reintroduce blue bins and scrap the blue sack scheme; reverse the dimmed street lighting; and increase the budget for pothole and pavement repair.

The total of the additional spending costs and revenue losses proposed by the Conservatives totalled £4.9m, which the party balanced by £1.1m of savings, £1m of one-off reserves, and £2.81m funded by re-allocating the New Homes Bonus grant from capital spend to revenue.

Responding to the amendments, the council’s director of finance said: “[…] these proposals are heavily dependent on the New Homes Bonus grant. This is a non-ring-fenced grant that is currently recorded as a reserve and used to finance the capital programme. Allocating a proportion of the grant into the council’s revenue budget is allowed under the current grant conditions, however this would have an impact on the financing of the capital programme.”

They added: “In addition, this grant is highly unpredictable and is one of the reasons why this grant has historically not been budgeted for in the revenue budget. There is therefore a risk of building this volatile grant into the base budget and calls into question the sustainability of the proposals set out in this report that are to be funded by this grant.”

Liberal Democrats Budget Amendments:

The Liberal Democrats are the next largest party within the council, with three councillors out of the total 57. The group claimed its ten budget amendments ‘cover key issues residents feel the council is not dealing with’, such as the state of the roads and pavements, increased rubbish on the streets, and the limited youth provision.

The party leader, Cllr Anton Georgiou, said the groups fully costed proposal ‘reflects the wishes of local residents and will prioritise urgent improvements in Brent’. He added: “The Liberal Democrats strongly believe that if residents are being asked to pay more than ever, the concerns they have about our borough and the improvements they want to see must be prioritised. Our 10 amendments have been crafted to enhance the offer Brent Council is making for residents.”

Cllr Georgiou claimed residents are getting ‘increasingly angry’ about the dirty state of the borough due to a ‘succession of cuts’ to street cleaning and refuse collection services. The Liberal Democrats proposed increasing the street cleaning budget by £500,000, funded through reallocating funds from the New Homes Bonus, to ensure every street is swept once a week, with cleaning in busy shopping areas done daily.

Other key priorities put forward included increasing the road and pavement budget by £0.5m to keep them ‘safe and accessible’, describing many as being in a ‘dangerous condition’. The party also wanted £1m borrowed from reserves to fund a new ‘youth officer’ to support organisations offering early intervention programs in Brent.

Other proposals outlined in the ten amendments included more funding to help the council achieve its target of being net zero by 2030; installing CCTV in parks to deter antisocial behaviour; and providing more in-person services to tackle ‘digital exclusion’.

The total of the additional spending costs proposed by the Liberal Democrats totalled £16.83m, which the party balanced by; £10m of Strategic Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funds; £0.15m from Neighbourhood CIL; £4m from reserves; and £2.68m funded by re-allocating the New Homes Bonus grant from capital spend to revenue.

Responding to the amendments, the council’s director of finance said: “The Alternative Budget proposed by the Liberal Democrat Group would be a legal, balanced budget for 2024/25, although it is recognised that this carries financial risk. The potential implications for 2025/26 and beyond have not been considered as part of these proposals.”

They added: “Secondly, reserves have been used to fund certain proposals with potential ongoing revenue implications into future years. There is a risk that new services become embedded into council services making it more difficult to cease.” The finance director raised the same concerns regarding the reallocation of the NHB funds as with the Conservatives.

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