Feb 21 2012 by David Norbury, Chester Chronicle
POLITICAL heavyweights at Cheshire West and Chester Council are gearing up for the traditional gloves off showpiece of the authority’s year.
The full council meets on Thursday (February 23) in Winsford to debate the Tory administrations’s budget recommendations for 2012/13 - including a council tax freeze for the second successive year.
Its total expenditure approaches three quarters of a billion pounds.
Tory chief whip Cllr Mark Williams will be hoping his group’s majority of nine will carry the budget through.
But his Labour opposite number, Cllr Paul Donovan, will be ready to pounce on the slightest opportunity to secure any advantage for the opposition, facing their first budget debate since sweeping gains in last May’s elections.
A taste of the likely friction emerged at this month’s meeting of the Conservative controlled Executive when opposition figures locked horns with portfolio holders.
Chester councillor Alex Tate, who holds the Labour brief for adult care, accepted there was ‘an urgent need to control costs in an area where demand is expected to rise considerably’.
But she claimed that ‘sweeping changes’ included in the budget were ‘a clear danger to vulnerable people in our community’.
“Any small change is very difficult for the less able to manage,” she pointed out.
The budget would impose ‘severe and sudden change’ and the ‘harsh’ changes could increase stress for ‘already confused’ clients.
But portfolio holder Cllr Brenda Dowding argued the council ‘had made tremendous efforts’ to safeguard front line services as it recognised how important they were.
She highlighted a new contract for home care which had led to improved service standards at lower cost.
“You would expect to pay more for improved services,” she suggested.
For Labour, Cllr Julia Tickridge told resources portfolio holder Cllr Les Ford, the authority’s deputy leader:“This is a very ambitious budget the council has set itself for 2012/13 and for the next three years under extreme financial constraints”.
Questioning the financial risk of accepting the government’s one year grant to enable the proposed freeze she asked if a ‘domino effect’ could jeopardise the council’s plans and affect the borough’s 140,000 council tax payers in the future.
Cllr Ford replied he had ensured the council was ‘sufficiently resilient’ to deal with the risk, amounting to 2.5% of the budget and added: “We are turning ourselves into a very efficient ship”.
Resources director Julie Gill argues that in terms of financial management ‘the budget builds on the considerable success of the first three years of the new council’.
“During this period the council has delivered savings of around £82m, reinvesting £34m in front line services and reducing costs for council taxpayers by £48m,” she says
The council faces an estimated funding gap of £2m in 2013-14 and possibly an estimated £10m-£15m in 2014.
Cllr Ford says it is already working on proposals to meet the shortfall.
A £71m programme of capital schemes is proposed with £112m over the next three years including an academy in Ellesmere Port, highways maintenance and the new Chester theatre.
Schools would receive a £200m grant.
Rents of council housing in Ellesmere Port would increase by an average of 9% to fund five-year expenditure of £54m designed to achieve ‘decent homes standard’ for all council houses in the town.
The budget meeting starts at 5pm in the council’s offices in Winsford.
If approved, Cheshire West and Chester’s standard band D council tax rate for 2012-13 would remain at £1,254.59.
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