Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporter
Additional reporting: John Baron
Council tax increases, £16m of service cuts and an extra 211 new jobs have been approved as Leeds City Council passes its mixed bag of a budget for the coming year.
The plans confirm that, although the budget is set to increase by £86.7m on last year, around £16.5m of cuts still needed to be made to services due to spiralling costs.
According to latest proposals, the authority will have to shed 19 full-time equivalent job posts, but will create 211 new FTE jobs.
It also includes a council tax increase of 2.99 per cent – split between core council tax (1.99 per cent) and the adult social care precept (one per cent). This means council tax for a band D property will increase by £45.24 a year.
The council says it will use the budget to put further support into looked-after children, family mental health issues and care for vulnerable adults living at home.
But opposition councillors accused the ruling Labour group of not focussing enough on community safety, as many called for the reintroduction of extra community police funding.
Speaking at a full Leeds City Council budget meeting this week council leader James Lewis (Lab) said:
“The Conservatives skew public funding towards their own councils. This budget is set against a backdrop of cuts. Cumulatively the amount cut from council services for people in our district is £2.3bn.
“Council austerity is not over for us. This means more uncertainty for local resources, leaving us with a financial challenge. The chancellor wants local council tax to shoulder more of the burden.
“After 12 years of economic incompetence, we have a chancellor increasing taxes for working people while pay increases below inflation.
“Many people in Leeds were affected by poverty before Covid 19.”
Cllr Lewis reiterated the pledge to pay the real living wage of £9.90 an hour to employees. He said: “The last two years of the pandemic have been the most difficult many of us have known. Last month we topped the list of the most vibrant cities in the UK, while the number of new construction schemes in Leeds is the second highest.
“This budget sets out how despite the austerity agenda from Conservatives, we are investing in young people’s future.”
Responding to Coun Lewis, Conservatives group deputy leader Coun Alan Lamb (Con) said:
“Like an ageing rock star who hasn’t penned a hit for years, he relies on the old favourites. Hits like ‘cuts cuts cuts’.
“The Labour front bench is starting to resemble a dodgy Bucks Fizz reunion. The spending bucks they have borrowed have certainly lost their fizz.”
He went onto blame “financial incontinence” for the council’s current financial problems, citing the rising debt repayments, which add to around £30m in the coming year’s budget.
He added: “The financial challenge in Leeds was made in Leeds and made by Labour.
“Where has all the money gone? That is where we come to the decisions Cllr Lewis and his colleagues made when it comes to debt repayments.”
He outlined numerous proposed amendments to the council budgets – these included an extra £2m towards pilot homecare schemes, £1.65m to facilitate reductions in parking charge tariffs and an extra £240k towards ceasing bulky waste charges.
He added: “We have a much more positive vision for our city. We believe in the people and businesses of our city and want to unleash the potential. We would get the basics right.”
All opposition groups – Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Green, Morley Borough Independents and Garforth and Swillington Independents – submitted identical amendments, calling for £1.332m to be cut from the Leeds 2023 events budget and instead use that cash to fund extra PCSOs, which were cut in last year’s budget.
Coun Stewart Golton (Lib Dem) suggested the city’s fostering service could be run as a ‘John Lewis-style’ employee owned company adding:
“Too many of our young people have been placed in private foster care outside the area, far away from their families.”
Other amendments by the group include feasibility studies to look into reopening Marsh Lane rail station near the city centre. He added: “It will serve to reduce pressure on nearby stations.
“These new station proposals enjoy significant popular support from people in communities. Civic leaders seem to care only about HS2 provision in the city.”
The Lib Dems also included an amendment to buy up and renovate the Sugar Hill estate houses in Oulton, for which private developers are serving eviction notices. He said the council had behaved “appallingly” towards residents, and called on labour members to “vote with their hearts”.
Morley Borough Independents leader Coun Robert Finnigan said: “There are some good ideas coming from some of these amendments. At this particular point, there should be reflection and some process on how we have genuine partnership.”
Referencing the PCSO plans, he said: “The administration thinks we need more plays and more fine art. We think that is a load of Jackson Pollocks. Our residents need more police in their communities.”
He added he would “join the Sugar Hill Gang”, and support the Lib Dem amendment to buy up and renovate the Sugar Hill estate.
Garforth and Swillington Independents group leader Coun Mark Dobson said: “All too often we have a series of excuses. We have to endure the usual set of recriminations that it is someone else’s fault. Leeds 2023 to us reflects a cultural paternalism that too often finds favour in this council.”
Coun Lewis, summing up, said:
“I turn to Coun Lamb’s contribution on [council debt]. It was not putting off debt – it was knowing we had been overpaying on our debt.
“The Conservatives offered no alternatives. They never told us what their cuts would have been to cover the costs of [debts].
“When I look through their budget amendments, there is a lot of money from nowhere in there. They say they can make more money from selling assets in the city, but where is their secret list of buildings they want to sell?”
On the proposed amendment for the residents of the Sugar Hill estate, he suggested it would be unworkable.
“It would need £13m,” he said. “The Liberal Democrat amendment is for £4.9m. Coun Golton has not come clean. It is not enough money for what is needed. It is a cynical trick.
“This is a budget that takes our city forward and I am proud to move it.”
Pudsey Conservative councillors Trish Smith and Dawn and Simon Seary proposed an investment of over £1m, which would see the re-opening of the West Leeds Visitors Centre in Pudsey Park as well as the reinstatement of a city-wide mobile team of park and countryside rangers and a £500,000 investment pot to improve facilities in parks.
Cllr Smith, who is Shadow Executive Member for Parks and Countryside, said: “If approved, these amendments to Leeds City Council’s budget would yield tangible results to residents.
“Recent times have shown how important open spaces are to us all. We want to make improvements to our parks by investing half a million pounds across the city, but we also want to create an improved parks and countryside ranger service to help people feel safe and secure when visiting and to tackle quad bikes which have become a real problem in communities in West Leeds.
“The amendment would also see the popular West Leeds Visitors Centre re-opened in my Ward which I believe was a mistake in closing in the first place.”
West Leeds Dispatch‘s Cutswatch series has been following proposed council budget cuts and building sales over the past 12 months here.
As a Labour voter I have to say that as a party we are not doing ourselves any favours (we have a mayor who ran on a ticket for public transport yet the first thing she did was put my fare up from £4.70 to £5.20 a day)my council tax is going up again by 2.9% while my services are being cut back(haven’t seen one gritter all winter had to contact council on numerous occasions over failed bin collections, closing local visitors centre etc).
the money goes on hardly used cycle lanes