Thanet councillors have approved budget measures for the financial year which include a £14.5million upgrade of isle towerblocks, 10 new staff for street cleaning, a new climate change officer and reversing plans to cut spending on public toilets with a £175,000 refurbishment programme instead.
However, approval did not come from across the chamber tonight (February 6) with all 21 Conservative members present abstaining from the vote in response to the inclusion of a rise in council rents.
Rent increases will help pay for projects such as the £14.5m towerblock upgrades across the isle.
A report to councillors says: “Based on the CPI + 1% across the whole stock the average rent is £83.05, this is an average increase of £2.50p per property.” Affordable rents remain frozen.
The rent rise caused consternation within the ranks of the Conservative members.
Conservative Phil Fellows said although tenants on housing benefit and Universal Credit would have the extra paid via benefit, those not receiving help would be hit.
He added: “A quarter of council housing tenants receive no help whatsoever. I see dozens of people on a daily basis who are struggling to pay their bills.”
Deputy council leader Helen Whitehead said the decision was not reached lightly, adding: “We have had a freeze for four years in terms of the revenue account, severely restricting our ability to deal with a council housing list of over 2,000 people desperately wanting accommodation. We need to break the cycle of homelessness and make sure people are not forced into insecure tenancies that they cannot afford and so are forced back on to our list.”
Cllr Whitehead said keeping rents low whilst using income to provide secure housing for more people to reduce the housing list was “absolutely vital.”
Cllr Ruth Bailey said she backed the budget proposal and hoped funds would be found for the Thanet Coastal Project whilst Cllr Stuart Piper also gave support saying: “The budget is either balanced or it isn’t. There are concerns about rents but sometimes you have to make very difficult decisions.”
Labour, Green, Thanet Independent group and independent Cllr Bailey all voted in favour of approving the budget.
The budget pot
The authority has a £17.1 million budget to fund services during April 2020 – March 2021.
The pot is made up from council tax,fees and charges, retained business rates and Government funding.
The shortfall, predicted to rise to £2.5million by 2023, comes amid plunging income from Government. The Revenue Support Grant to Thanet from central government was £97,000 for the 2019-20 financial year. In 2018-19 it was £809,000 and in 2017-18 the grant stood at £1.446m. This is compared to £6.636m in 2013-14.
A one year settlement of £100,000 has been made for 2020-21. Plans to end the government revenue support grant from 2020 have now been rolled forward to 2021.
Money from the government’s New Homes Bonus has dried up as TDC has not qualified for it since 2016-17, apart from small amounts for affordable housing growth.
Council plans to make £730,000 of savings include scrapping the Waste & Recycling Education Officer post and the Open Spaces supervisor post and a predicted increase in green waste collections and income of £208,000 from fees and charges.
Proposals for more shared services, including leadership teams, have also been made and some £400,000 has been added to the budget for homelessness.
Other proposals include income from a new authority housing company which would manage housing for market rent and installing new beach huts, again with rental income.
To help fund services TDC plans to increase its element of council tax by £4.95 – equating to a weekly rise of around 10p for an average Band D property.
Thanet District Council receives 13p in every £1 of council tax. The remainder goes to: Kent County Council, Kent Police, Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, Kent Fire and Rescue Service and Town/Parish Councils.
Cabinet Member for Financial Services, Cllr Rob Yates, said: “We hope that this budget addresses the needs of the residents whilst investing further in council activities and putting in place a plan for growth in public services. Thanet District Council has had the largest fall in spending power over the last 10 years, compared with every council in Kent. We now have only 62% of the spending power that we had back in 2010.
“Within this budget we are fixing health and safety problems in our housing stock, building at least 40 new council houses, investing in a new housing company to bring new properties to the market, introducing 10 new environmental operatives to improve street cleansing, increasing levels of recycling, refurbishing public toilets, increasing council tax on long term empty homes and introducing a climate change officer post.
“We hope that this budget will mean that in years to come we will be in a better place to meet the many demands of the most important people in Thanet, you the residents.”
The budget will be implemented from 1 April 2020.
Controversial plans to sell the freehold for Dreamland, inclusive of the council-owned car park and the TDC restored cinema and Sunshine Café building, will go ahead unchanged despite Labour councillors raising concerns under the previous Conservative administration.
Dreamland’s operator, SHL, currently holds a 99 year lease but the proposal would see the firm, buy the freehold – subject to agreement from external funders regarding the removal of ongoing grant obligations upon the council and subject to legal advice.
Proposals to earmark £3million to refurbish the council’s Cecil Street offices, with the eventual aim of relocating, also remain unchanged.
The spend was agreed in the last budget under the then-ruling Conservative group. TDC would look to sell the Cecil Square building to recoup funds.
Thanet Parkway Station
A pledge made in last year’s budget to commit £2million to the Thanet Parkway Station remains unchanged. The cost of the scheme has now spiralled from an initial £11million to £34.5million.
There will be a review of council policy of charging for replacement refuse and recycling bins. Charges for replacement recycling bins and bags came into force in April 2018 after Thanet council said it could no longer afford to provide them for free. Charges for waste containers (black bins) were brought in during 2017.
This will now be reviewed with “an examination of fairer ways of charging for refuse and recycling bin replacements.”
Plans to boost local businesses and the Thanet economy are also included.
Enterprising Thanet is a “buy local” strategy based on the Preston Model where the council and larger anchor businesses redirect their annual spend to local businesses and enterprises.
Preston City Council adopted the model in 2013. Work has included establishing a publicly-owned investment bank to support local small businesses and social enterprises.
Preston council says anchor institutions – such as NHS trusts, universities, trade unions, large local businesses and housing associations – can recruit from lower incomes areas, with a commitment to paying the living wage, and develop local supply chains.
Thanet council’s plan states: “It is designed to maximise the benefit of council spending on local businesses, employment and the environment. We plan to work more closely with businesses and public sector partners to encourage local spending and increase the capacity of local businesses to respond to the initiative.”
The idea is to use a social value procurement process. Winning bids would have to still represent the best value for money but contracts could be carved into pieces to give smaller businesses an even playing field.
The scheme will include an overhaul of fire safety arrangements, such as compartmentation works, fire doors, alarms, smoke vents, and flat entrance doors, as well as upgrades to electrical installations and the CCTV.
Thanet Coast Project
The authority is considering keeping the Thanet Coast Project officer role funded as part of its 2020/21 budget.
It resulted in a huge public outcry and a petition launched by resident and coastal warden Sam Bessant, which gained thousands of signatures.
Public pressure resulted in a decision to fund the coast project officer role for another financial year with exploration on how it could then be self-funded. But if alternative funding was not found then the role could be made redundant.
Thanet council will now explore how the role can continue being funded.