Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Expect to see a five-year freeze in the Huntingdonshire part of your Council Tax bill.
Huntingdonshire District Council has promised there will be no increase in its share of the tax next year – and is adamant it can continue to operate for a further four years without inflicting pain in the pockets of residents.
And it has plans to be able to deliver its services without reliance on central government handouts through grants and the new homes bonus.
Instead HDC will continue a multi-million pound investment in commercial activities with the aim of providing a healthy return to fund services.
The council’s executive leader Councillor Jason Ablewhite said that HDC will spend £30million – some of it borrowed at cheap interest rates – buying commercial property, as well as continuing to save money sharing more services and getting its leisure centres turning a profit.
But he said the council was only in a position to be able to freeze Council Tax and look at investing money because it had managed to get ahead with delivering efficiency savings demanded by Westminster following the banking crisis.
In terms of HDC Council Tax bills, a Band D property could remain at £133.18 until 2019/20.
“We’re managing to balance the books three years earlier than expected,” Cllr Ablewhite told The Hunts Post. “We’re now looking at where we can get a good return and looking to invest more money. One area is growing the commercial property estate over the next year, investing capital but getting a return of about 8-9 per cent – better than anything the banks are offering.”
Cllr Ablewhite added that the freeze in Council Tax, which in the past prompted a payment from London to councils, would not be at the expense of services: “Innovation and restructure have meant we are now in a stronger financial position to be able to continue the freeze that we introduced last year.”
Cost-cutting measures at HDC have seen some senior staff leave, large numbers of workers have their wages cut and services shared with neighbouring councils – with more plans to share services being discussed with South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge city councils.
One service currently off the list of potential targets for large scale cuts are the leisure centres. HDC’s Facing the Future document, which long-listed hundreds of potential ideas for saving money, included the possibility of closing the smaller centres – in Sawtry and Ramsey.
But that idea was long dead before it ever saw any light, said Cllr Ablewhite. In two years’ time, he added, the five-strong leisure centre business will start making a profit with the larger centres at St Neots, Huntingdon and St Ives subsidising the smaller two venues.
However, Mike Shellens, a Liberal Democrat councillor at HDC, questioned whether the budgets had been balanced and told The Hunts Post HDC’s reserves were still being used.
“Clearly Council Tax is an important factor in many household budgets but the majority [of the bill is raised] by the county council, so the effect will be limited but welcome,” he added.
“Yes, there have been savings but you cannot infinitely do things more efficiently.
“There have been services withdrawn – such as the public toilets a few years ago – but bins will still need to collected. You have to ask what sort of district will we have left?”
Cllr Shellens did welcome HDC’s plans to invest in new accommodation for homeless families but was concerned about the investment in commercial property – an area susceptible to “boom and bust”, he said.