Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporter
Nearly £90m of cuts, 800 job losses and a five per cent rise in council tax have been voted through as part of Leeds City Council’s budget for the coming year.
The changes were announced by the authority’s new leader Coun James Lewis (Lab), who said the increases in demand for services and loss of revenue caused by Covid-19 meant the city was facing its “biggest crisis in 75 years”.
However, opposition leader Coun Andrew Carter (Con, Calverley & Farsley) claimed the authority’s financial problems were “self-inflicted wounds” and warned further financial hardship would be caused by the council’s “profligate” borrowing policies.
Changes in the budget for the forthcoming 2021/22 financial year include a rise of 1.99 per cent in council tax, as well as a three per cent increase in the adult social care precept. A report by council officers said this was due to compensate for Covid-related losses in council tax revenues.
When taking into account extra financial help from central government, the council now claims it needs to make £87.5m of cuts by March 2022. There had been concerns as recently as September 2020 that this figure could be more than £160m.
However, proposals still estimate a reduction of 791 full time equivalent staff. The council says it will be issuing a section 188 redundancy notice later this month.
Further budget gaps have been estimated at £100m over the following two years.
Making his first speech as council leader, Coun Lewis introduced the budget for the following year:
“We meet today to set a budget under the shadow of the biggest crisis facing our city and the world in over 75 years.
“More than 70,000 people in Leeds now claim Universal Credit and we estimate there are another 40,000 workers on the furlough scheme. The number of people affected is enormous and it shows the effects on people’s lives and the economy.
“We have seen a massive increase in the demand for services and at the same time have been hit with an enormous loss of income.
“Raising council tax is never an easy decision, but to help protect services important to residents, 59 percent of people who responded to the consultation agreed it is the right thing to do. Council tax has been lower than other cities for some time, and will continue to be so.
“Our city continues to be held back by the incompetence of Westminster, with a public service and transport infrastructure starved of funding.”
Presenting his own party’s proposed amendments to the budget, Conservative group leader Coun Carter said:
“The majority of the budget pressures, the impact has been reduced substantially, largely due to massive government grant and support since last March.
“The result of existing budget pressures in Leeds are primarily linked to the borrowing policies that councillors Lewis and Blake have pursued in the past five years. It’s interesting that Coun Blake has moved on, but your new leader is left with the problems that he and his predecessor largely created.”
He likened the council’s minimum revenue provision borrowing policy with taking an interest-only mortgage for “three or four years”, but also borrowing more money “unsupported by external grants”.
Coun Carter added:
“We are left with self-inflicted wounds because of profligate borrowing policies which the council was warned against. Over the next 10 years, the council will pay off £527m in forecast debt repayments.
“It is the borrowing policies of Coun Lewis that means people will have to pay more on their council tax. It’s time Couns Lewis and Blake owned up to the fact their financial policies have put us in the position we are in.”
Proposed budget amendments from the Conservatives included reducing charges for cremation services and for bulky waste, reintroducing local centres programme to help businesses in town centres, an extra £1.5m for roads, and to cancel cuts to PCSO numbers and neighbourhood network budgets.
Presenting his own group’s proposed amendments, Liberal Democrats group leader Coun Stewart Golton said:
“We hope to offer direction where it has been lost, focus where it is lacking, and initiative where it is needed.”
The group proposed building a new home for looked after children, reversing plans to close two care homes, keeping PCSOs, removing bulky waste and replacement bin charges.
Proposed amendments from the Green Party group’s Couns David and Ann Blackburn (Green, Farnley & Wortley) included removing bulky waste charges, keeping West Leeds Country Park Visitor Centre in Pudsey Park open, a reduction in councillors’ special responsibility allowances and a further £1m to be spent on repairing collapsed gullies.
Morley Borough Independents spokesman Coun Andrew Hutchison proposed his own group’s proposed amendments, which included reducing officer support in community committees, a reduction of 31 percent in councillors’ special responsibility allowances, keeping open Lewisham (Morley), Allerton Bywater and Windmill community centres.
Proposed amendments from the Garforth and Swillington Independents group included scrapping bulky waste charges and removing the managed prostitution zone in Holbeck, instead spending the money on “a new approach to supporting prostituted women in the area”.
All amendments, however, were outvoted by the council’s majority Labour group.
West Leeds Dispatch‘s Cutswatch series has been following the proposed cuts over the past few months here.