By David Spereall, local democracy reporter
Leeds residents will see council tax rise by close to five per cent in April, after city councillors approved a new budget for the next 12 months.
The increase will be made up of a 2.99 per cent in core council tax, plus a 1.99 per cent rise in the social care precept, which is used to help fund care for vulnerable adults.
It was the biggest hike that could be passed without a local referendum and comes amid the dire financial position facing local government.
The council is using £15m of its reserves to plug a hole in its bank balance for the first time in living memory this year, in a move blamed predominantly on inflation and spiralling energy costs.
The Labour administration’s plans for the next financial year will save around £60m.
Other cost-cutting measures include ending Bonfire Night firework displays and dimming streetlights, while rent for council house tenants will go up by seven per cent.
Presenting the plans at a meeting on Wednesday, council leader James Lewis said it was “the most challenging budget in living memory” and claimed the tax increase and measures were necessary to help look after the most vulnerable in society.
He also attacked the government for cutting a cumulative £2.5bn from the council’s bank balance since 2010.
Councillor Lewis said: “Tomorrow marks the five-month anniversary since the disastrous Conservative mini budget which added £30bn to the £60bn hole in the UK economy, pushed up interest rates and the cost of borrowing, and inflation is running close to 10 per cent.
“But it’s not just the last five months that have been chaos, it’s been 13 years of chaos.
“Government has given councils no choice but to raise council tax. Our council tax in Leeds remains the second lowest of all comparable core cities in England.”
Most opposition parties did not oppose the council tax rise, but all put forward amendments suggesting how ratepayers’ money could be, as they see it, better spent.
The Conservative group suggested cutting spending on agency staff and trade union convenors within the council and called for firework displays and Christmas lights switch-ons to be spared the axe.
They also called for the council to look at offering free childcare places for social workers’ kids, in a bid to boost recruitment.
Tory group leader Andrew Carter was critical of the Labour administration for its performance since it took charge of Leeds in 2010 – the same year Labour lost power in Westminster.
“The children’s services department has gone over budget by £55m since 2010,” Councillor Carter said.
“Why has it taken you so blooming long to look into the children’s services department and sort out its financial problems?
“The government have been in power for 13 years. So have you.
“When are you going to take responsibility for any of the decisions that you’ve got wrong in this council over the past 13 years?”
Liberal Democrat group leader Stewart Golton criticised the administration for its plans to dim streetlights.
He told the chamber: “They say it’s only by 20 per cent and we won’t even notice anything, so it’s all right.
“We don’t think we should be cutting corners when it comes to public safety. We feel public safety is something that is absolute and should be protected at all costs.
“I wouldn’t take the risk if I was in charge of this council.”
The Lib Dems also proposed introducing a tax on second homes in Leeds, to fund improvements in social housing.
Opposition groups criticised Labour for ceasing its funding of 37 PCSOs in Leeds, which had been funded jointly by the council and the mayor of West Yorkshire.
The administration says it can no longer afford its share of the cost.
The Morley Borough Independents (MBIs), who hold all six of the town’s seats on the city council, called for more money to be spent on school safety schemes.
MBI leader Robert Finnigan also proposed building 100 new council homes in Morley, with the last social housing built in the town having been put up in the 1980s.
Green Party leader David Blackburn (Farnley & Wortley) called for pay cuts for the highest-paid council employees to fund improvements in parks and green spaces, and for the introduction of a hotel bed tax in the city, which would see visitors charged a levy when they stay overnight.
The Garforth and Swillington Independents (GSIs), meanwhile, suggested one per cent be knocked off the proposed council tax rise, to be funded by reserves. Leader Mark Dobson also called for Bonfire Night celebrations to be retained.
All amendments put forward by opposition parties were defeated, however.
WLD has been following council cuts through our Cutswatch series.