The Council considered the recommendations made by Cabinet at its meeting held on 16 February 2022 relating to 2022/23 Budget.
The Leader, Councillor Mead introduced the report and outlined her proposals in the traditional budget speech. A copy of the speech is attached as an appendix to the minutes.
Councillor Mead acknowledged the events, turmoil and impact of the last year. She advised on the number of support grants provided along with the processing of £49 million to a broad spectrum of businesses in West Oxfordshire. Councillor Mead went on to confirm sufficient funding to cover the Council’s revenue expenditure and was pleased to be able to present a balanced budget despite the alterations to funding made by government just before Christmas.
The Council Adopted Recovery Investment Strategy and the difficulties encountered in finding suitable investments was referred to with reassurances that opportunities were always being investigated. Councillor Mead reminded the meeting that free parking was still committed to along with grants to the voluntary sector and community facilities grants. New ways of working were actively being explored with Ubico to find ways of reducing the cost of delivering the waste service and the Council Tax was still the second lowest shire district in England.
Councillor Mead concluded by thanking the Cabinet Member for Finance, the scrutiny committees and the Chief Finance officer and her team for their huge efforts in bringing the budget together. She therefore proposed the recommendations as laid out. These were seconded by Councillor Coul who reserved her right to speak until after the debate.
Councillor Graham addressed the meeting and reiterated the compliments to all staff for keeping services running. He thanked officers for responding to his queries and felt that the budget contained some good proposals. He referred to the difficulties encountered in keeping the planning system on the road but was concerned at the number of staff that had left the authority for more competitive salaries. Councillor Graham did not feel that the Council had looked after its staff as well as it could have done and criticised the lack of planning that had gone into replacing the Monitoring Officer role. He concluded by referring to the £5 uplift to the Council Tax which he did not feel would help residents and advised that the Liberal Democrats were not satisfied there was a long term strategy in place. For that reason, he advised that the Liberal Democrat members would be abstaining from the vote.
Councillor Saul spoke and repeated the thanks to the finance team for their patience and understanding when explaining processes to Members. He reminded the meeting of the financial ‘cliff edge’ that had been lurking for some time and despite this the Council had retained its core services. Councillor Saul stated that this was a cautious budget but that the funding streams were problematic and would be difficult for any administration to deal with. However, he felt that central government needed to provide greater autonomy, and the resultant council tax rise was inevitable. He stated that the Labour Party believed this to be a regressive tax and for that reason would be abstaining from the vote.
Councillor Prosser echoed his thanks to the finance department and advised that he did not feel that Planning was keeping pace with the growing population. He felt that the Capital Programme should be scrutinised properly and he would not be able to vote until that happened.
A number of Members added their gratitude to the staff who had carried out a good job under difficult circumstances. Councillor Coles noted the helpful briefing that the Labour Group had received from the finance officers and requested more investment to deal with Air Quality issues and sewerage pollution.
Councillor Al-Yousuf reminded the meeting that despite the challenges faced the Council had kept the cost of services down and the operating expenditure was down on last year. He provided a breakdown of the Council Tax levels residents in his Ward were paying and highlighted the levels being paid to Thames Valley Police and the County Council. Councillor Al-Yousuf felt this was a prudent budget and should be approved.
The Cabinet Member for Strategic Planning, Councillor Haine expressed disappointment in the comments being made about the Planning Service because there was a gross shortage of students in this field of work. He recognised that this was a nationwide issues and work had been completed to ensure that competitive salaries were being offered.
Councillor Cooper expressed his views on Council Tax which he reminded the meeting was unfair because it was not related to the ability to pay but related to the property lived in. He reiterated his frustrations at being unable to amend the funding for solar energy and solar panels and did not feel the Council was progressing in line with partner Councils. He concluded by referring to the funding for parish and town councils in relation to car parking.
Councillor Davies expressed her disappointment in the level of dissent in the chamber and had hoped the work completed over the past two years could be voted on together. She recognised that the focus should be on residents and stated that it was shame the Council was not united.
In seconding the proposal, Councillor Coul echoed the comments made by Councillor Davies, and reminded the meeting that Cotswold District Council had no reserves left due to a lack of prudence. Having heard the comments made by the opposition groups, she was disappointed that no alternatives had been put forward. However, she noted that the lack of alternatives was due to the fact that there were none available.
Councillor Coul reminded the meeting that there were many Councils across the country who would be envious of the financial position West Oxfordshire found itself in. She assured the meeting that all savings, efficiencies and grants were continuously being investigated in full and checks and balances repeatedly carried out. She concluded by recommending the budget which was prudent and allowed the Council to continue to deliver for its residents.
As required by statute, voting on the proposition was recorded, and the voting was as follows:
For the proposition: Councillors Al-Yousuf, Beaney, Bull, Cotterill, Coul, Crossland, Davies, Dent, Dingwall, Doughty, Eaglestone, Fenton, Haine, Harvey, Hill, Johnson, Langridge, MacRae, McBride, Mead, Nicholls, Postan, St John, Temple, Wilson and Woodruff (26).
Abstentions: Councillors Cahill, Coles, Collins, Cooper, Goodwin, Graham, Jackson, Leffman, Levy, Parkinson, Poskitt, Prosser and Saul (13).
There being 26 votes in favour, none against and 13 abstentions, the proposition was carried.
Resolved that the following be approved:
(i) The updated Medium Term Financial Strategy in Annex A
(ii) General Fund revenue budgets as summarised in Annex B
(iii) The Capital Programme for 2021/22 to 2030/31 set out in Annex E
(iv) Fees and Charges for 2022/23 as set out in Annex D
(v) The Council’s Pay Policy Statement as set out in Annex F
(vi) The Council’s Capital Strategy 2022/23 as set out in Annex G
(vii) The Council’s Investment Strategy 2022/23 as set out in Annex H
(viii) The Council’s Treasury Management Strategy 2022/23 as set out in Annex I