Dorset Council, faced with a budget shortfall in excess of £18m due to the Covid pandemic, has voted to increase council tax for residents by five percent – the maximum allowed by central government.
At the full council meeting on Tuesday 16th February 2021 a budget of just under £313m was approved for the next financial year 2021 to 2022. However there was criticism from some councillors that no money was allocated in the budget to address the climate and ecological crisis.
Hole in the council’s finances
The council tax increase will bring in an additional £12m of income that will go towards plugging the hole in the council’s finances caused by its coronavirus response.
There’s been additional expenditure on things like support for vulnerable residents, PPE, COVID-secure arrangements, while income has been lost from car parking, leisure services, business rates and council tax.
Councillor Gary Suttle
“The most challenging budget”
Dorset Council portfolio holder for finance, commercial and capital strategy and elected representative for Swanage, councillor Gary Suttle said:
“When we set the current budget for the year 20 to 21, who could have imagined what would happen in the coming 12 months? This evening I present the budget as both the first in Covid times but also the most challenging budget of this council or any predecessor council in modern times.”
“We have no other choice”
Alongside the council tax rise, council staff will effectively receive a pay freeze.
Councillor Gary Suttle added:
“Any rise in council tax in these incredibly difficult times is, we acknowledge, a bitter pill to swallow. However to maintain services to people in Dorset, we have no other choice.”
Councillor Beryl Ezzard
“Carbon neutral by 2030 not by 2040!”
An amendment was proposed by councillor Beryl Ezzard, elected representative for Wareham to reallocate £100,000 of the budget towards tackling climate change. Councillor Beryl Ezzard asked:
“Why, when other councils nearby have, this council has not budgeted for climate and ecological emergency action in the coming year? £100,000 at the very least, should be a priority for this council; although we face many difficulties and trials currently, we need to focus on the objective of being carbon neutral by 2030 not by 2040!”
She proposed scrapping the £90,000 increase in councillors’ allowances for lead members and using part of the tourist information centre budget to fund the £100,000.
Climate change – “the most important show in town”
Councillor Gary Suttle replied that he was disappointed by this amendment being brought at such a late hour, when there had been plenty of consultation over the budget and at no time had this issue been raised before. He said:
“I believe personally and on behalf of my colleagues that climate change is considered by us as one of the significant priorities within this council. I will not have people say it isn’t, because certainly from my own personal life and from all the actions of councillors I believe it is and should be the most important show in town.
“Currently government funding has allowed us to commence work on spending almost £19m updating the council’s buildings and the end result will be a significant saving in power consumption and a reduction in our carbon emissions in future years.”
He went on to say that those savings would be far in excess of the proposed £100,000 and that he would use those savings in the budget in 2022 to 2023 to tackle climate change. He pledged:
“I hope I will allocate – I will definitely allocate a sum significantly in excess of your proposal in future years from those savings.”
Councillor Beryl Ezzard’s amendment achieved some support from other councillors but was ultimately defeated.
Councillor Spencer Flower
“We need a better deal for Dorset”
At the end of the budget debate, the leader of Dorset Council, councillor Spencer Flower spoke in favour of approving the budget but said that he was unhappy with the level of funding that Dorset Council currently gets from central government. He said:
“I’m looking forward to a multi-year settlement where there is a degree of levelling up, with some of the inconsistencies in the historic way that local government, in particular the shires, have been funded by successive governments, regardless of their persuasion. We need a better deal for Dorset and I’m going to continue to lobby to get that.”
The budget was approved with 74 councillors voting in favour, four against and two abstentions.
- The agenda and papers, and a link to watch the committee online, are published on the council’s website