No council tax increase and balanced budget agreed

Wycombe District Council last night approved its budget for the 2019/20 financial year - the final budget that Wycombe District Council will set. By recorded vote after a debate, council agreed not to increase Wycombe District Council's share of the council tax bill and to a budget which involves millions of pounds of investment across the district on a wide range of projects. On average, a band D household will pay £136.99 for Wycombe District Council services for the year ahead.

Here's what Cabinet Member for Finance, Cllr David Watson said when presenting the final budget for Wycombe District Council during last night's meeting:

"Chairman, Aldermen, Members, members of the public – as local council tax payers we all have an interest in the continued provision of high standard public services across our district at the lowest long-term cost. This budget, the 45th and final such budget which this council will consider, seeks to address the key challenges and risks facing this authority and how it is planned to fund both the revenue and major projects expenditure during the year ahead.

"There are a number of financial challenges facing the council, namely uncertainty about the future of business rates, to what extent we will see negative revenue support grant in the coming years and the impact of inflation.

"There are also a number of financial risks which face the council during the year ahead, which include a possible increase in homelessness, the continued roll out of Universal Credit, the rising costs of the disposal of plastics, the potential volatility in retail rentals and the possible need for interim staff – there are also other risks, some of which are known about but are difficult to quantify, whilst others are yet to arise. On top of that we will have to manage the council through whatever Brexit decision emerges during the next 36 days.                            

"For only second time this council has published a draft budget which was reported at 17 December cabinet meeting – a detailed initial look at the budget enabled members to reflect upon the year ahead and in particular allowed the Improvement and Review Commission Task and Finish Group the opportunity to scrutinise the numbers, and also discuss them with myself and the S151 officer. A series of one on one meetings between cabinet members, the relevant Head of Service, the S151 officer and myself also took place during the past months and, as a consequence, the December draft has been amended in one or two respects.

"As we consider the financial future of the Council I would first remind members of what has gone before  - notably during the period since the tenant lead transfer of the housing stock to Red Kite, this Council has not had to borrow and we have become accustomed to being in a financially advantageous situation and this has meant that neither interest costs nor any minimum revenue provision have had to be charged to revenue  – the benefit of not having any borrowing costs has served to keep the council tax flat for most of the last decade. A new tool has been introduced this year in order to assist in the prioritisation of competing capital expenditure proposals and this has been used to prepare the ambitious £134.3 million major projects budget. Expenditure of £51.8 million is planned for the year ahead and the emphasis will need to be on project delivery. The underlying financial strategy is to control major project expenditure within the council’s capital funding envelope and thus avoid a return to borrowing and all the additional costs that would bring. The objective of the Major Projects Budget is to invest in the district to enable the locality to remain economically strong and generate future revenue streams. In order to keep within the projected capital envelope £88.3 million of projects are planned to be funded from capital receipts and reserves whilst £46 million of projects are to be funded from external grant from both Central Government and from Community Infrastructure Levies and Section 106 Contributions.

 "Some of the areas identified for future years investment include:

  • £6.2million investment in community facilities including, cemeteries, community and sports premises – notably the Risborough Springs Sports Centre and Court Garden Leisure Centre.
  • £48.1million for planning including strategic acquisitions and investments, Princes Risborough relief road, Abbey Barn Lane realignment and the High Wycombe Town Centre Master Plan.
  • £34.8million investment in economic development including town centre investment and the regeneration in order to develop the public realm and develop an increased income stream to fund council services in the future - land at Ashwells and a number of strategic acquisitions.
  • £14.9million investment in housing – includes temporary accommodation, a development of park homes at the Bassetbury Triangle, the use of disabled facilities grants and the delivery of affordable housing.
  • £0.9million on digital first – with the planned migration to the cloud the majority of IT expenditure will be mainly revenue in the future.
  • £7.7million environment – Swan St car park major works, waste fleet and parking equipment refresh.

"The background to the revenue budget is that over the past years the Council has worked hard to deliver the efficiencies required through fostering a culture of innovation and a focus on continuous improvement, engaged in shared services with other councils and obtained the optimum return from the cash and investments that we hold. Meanwhile the number of council employees has been reduced from over 600 to just over 250 during the past decade. This has enabled the Council to deliver savings for its 176,000 residents through a range of initiatives including more efficient structures, improved commercialisation, the pro-active use of council assets and the delivery of economic regeneration projects. With regards to 2019/20 the Council has set aside revenue budget for a number of additional purposes including the following:

  • £1.150 million for feasibility studies to support the ambitious major projects programme.
  • A £3 million contribution towards the total county unitary transition Costs
  • £105,000 for street wardens
  • £61,000 for the Prevent programme no longer funded by central government.
  • £1.230 million for economic development grants – additional funding arising from the successful business rates pooling pilot bid.

"In order to finance the above growth in expenditure the council expects to raise additional revenues from car parking charges, increase fees and charges, utilise the expected income stream from the new Crematoria, additional estate rental income, the application of earmarked reserves and a number of service efficiencies. It should be noted that the increase in car parking charges would be the first increase in ten years and the distribution of the increases is weighted towards long stay parking.

"Wycombe is the third largest district council in terms of tax base but 27th out of 201 in terms of council tax collected. In order to fund the budget for 2019/20, the Council is proposing to maintain the current level of council tax for a band D tax payer. This means that council will have only been increased twice during the past eight years. Wycombe District by freezing its council tax is, I am advised, bucking the national trend.

"I am pleased to say that the Wycombe council tax will remain the lowest amongst the four Buckinghamshire district councils and will also remain amongst the lowest 25% in the country.

"I am grateful to past and present councillors and officers who have run this council in a ‘’small c conservative’’ manner for many years and thus we have inherited healthy financial reserves which could, if needs be, be called upon in time of economic uncertainty – we do not want to be in a similar position to a number of struggling councils.

"I have in my hand a copy of the 1928 Borough of Chepping Wycombe Year End accounts and it makes interesting reading when compared with today – the breadth of the former responsibilities of that council is of note and how the responsibilities have been narrowed over time is striking – e.g. the ‘’poor rate’’, water, education libraries, assisted and council housing and much more – it is amazing what they could do without computer technology.

"Wycombe District Council was founded in 1974 and has been a well- run council on which I have, along with many other councillors, been proud to serve our local community.

"We leave a legacy of the leisure facilities at Handy Cross, a nursery and mini gym, new shopping facilities, Eden with a footfall of 14 million visitors a year and new homes at Bassetsbury and Ashwells in the pipeline. With regard to the planned unitary council, this authority will continue to be run on a professional basis up until the end of 19/20 and will hand over a council with well-run and sustainable services, a strong revenue stream , a strong balance sheet, no debts and a well thought out and ambitious major projects plan – to my mind the financially strongest of all five Buckinghamshire councils – something we all can be rightfully proud of.

"Wycombe District Council is in a financially strong position and, as your cabinet member for Finance and Resources, I recommend this 45th and final budget."

Read the agenda, reports and minutes for the council meeting on 21 February 2019