Despite a manifesto pledge to keep council tax below the average increase in “local earnings,” Huntingdonshire District Council is proposing to increase council tax while some data shows wages fell.
A report sent to the council's overview and scrutiny committee said that wages in Huntingdonshire fell by 0.3 per cent between July 2018 and 2019, but rose by 3.5 per cent across Cambridgeshire as a whole.
The executive councillor for resources, Conservative Cllr Jonathan Gray, said he would use the county-wide figure as a metric to determine council tax because Huntingdonshire's small data size affects its accuracy. Had he used the figures for Huntingdonshire, he accepted the council would not have been able to raise the council tax figure by as much as his party is suggesting.
The -0.3 per cent average wage growth figure did not appear in the council's official budget report considered by the cabinet on Thursday (January 23), a week after the overview and scrutiny committee.
The Huntingdonshire Conservatives previously pledged in their manifesto: "Any council tax increase will be lower than both the most recent State Pension increases and the average increase in local earnings".
The council tax proposal agreed by the Conservative authority's cabinet unanimously on Thursday (January 23) would see its share of the council tax rise by 2.6 per cent - the same as last year.
If the change is approved at a session of the full council next month, it will see Band D council tax owed to the district increase by £3.70 to £145.86.
Cllr Gray told the cabinet he was advised not to use the Huntingdonshire wage figures because there is "too wide a co-efficient variation".
"What that's really saying is it's quite a small number, quite a small sample, and the difference between people who are not earning very much money and people who are earning quite a lot of money is quite a wide variance, and so the average numbers in there need to be treated with caution.
"The Cambridgeshire sample, being a much larger sample, is a number that we were recognising when we set this out", he said.
He suggested the council may have to re-examine that benchmark, because the state pension rise in April of this year is 3.9 per cent.
"Pensioners are going to be very well looked after and there's a chance, a strong chance I think, that the state pension will actually be higher than local wages when we come to look at 2020.
"So I think we need to be really clear with the whole council the metric which we are using, because I don't want anyone doing any silly things in two and a half years time, saying that we didn't keep our manifesto pledge.
"I think the most important thing here is that 2.6 per cent, for every single person who is earning in this district, who is in receipt of benefits in this district, who is in receipt of state pension in this district, that is an affordable number. That keeps pace in real terms with their own salary, or it is lower than that".
He conceded the manifesto pledge of "local wages" was "open to interpretation" but insisted using the Cambridgeshire figure is "reasonable". "To be honest I think we are doing the right thing, and I feel we are pegging it with local wages," he said.
Asked when the Conservatives made the manifesto pledge if they meant Huntingdonshire or Cambridgeshire wages, he said: "We meant local wages. I don't think I had it in my mind which of those I meant. I meant wages that local people could afford to pay".
On the Huntingdon Conservatives' website, when explaining the council tax increase last year, it references both Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire wage growth, but as it says both were reasonably high - 3.5 per cent and 4.8 per cent respectively - so the issue did not arise.
The council report to the overview and scrutiny committee says: "Reflecting the majority groups manifesto commitment council tax has been set based on the following key employment indicators:
"Average Wage growth (July 2018 to July 2019)
"-Huntingdonshire - -0.3%
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"-Cambridgeshire - +3.5%
"-National - +2.7%"
A 2.6 per cent council tax increase would add approximately £232,000 to the council's finances.
As a shire district, the council could have raised its council tax by as much as £5 without needing to hold a confirmatory referendum, which would have equated to a 3.5 per cent increase.
Although the cabinet had been due to discuss the main opposition group's alternative budget at the meeting, no member of the Independent Group turned up. The group's submitted alternative proposals show it does endorse the 2.6 per cent council tax rise.
Speaking to the Hunts Post after the meeting, Councillor Tom Sanderson, leader of the Idependent group said: ""The independent group on HDC presented their alternative ideas to the council's cross party overview and scrutiny panel in January, where there were opportunities for all members of the panel to ask questions, all of which I answered and pour over the details which almost all of them did. The cabinet were then presented with feedback from the panel's chairman, Cllr Dew, who summarised the debate and the panel's views.
Our alternative ideas included more help for homeless families, additional funding for the Local Highway Improvements Scheme as well as facilities for young people.
If Cllr Fuller and colleagues would like to discuss or clarify any of the items in the alternative budget suggestions before the full council meeting on 26th February then I would be happy to do so. Previously he has criticised us for highlighting challenges in the council's budget without offering alternatives, so I look forward to them being given further consideration in order to find some common ground. Incidentally we accepted the Conservatives' manifesto commitment on Council Tax increases so we have already shown our willingness to listen to other points of view."
Conservative Cllr Ryan Fuller, who took over the leadership of the council in December, told the cabinet he thinks it is an "excellent budget".
He said he and his councillors would go into further detail at the full council, but added: "Cllr Gray has touched on an important point, that in the face of the changing government financial landscape, we shall call it - which is probably a clever way of saying government cuts - this is yet another growth budget.
"I don't like to hear this narrative that we sometimes get thrown at us, that this administration, or the previous administration, is cutting services or reducing money for our communities, because that's just frankly not what we are doing. We are protecting - as we always have - frontline services across Huntingdonshire".
The council is forecasting a budget gap of £422,000 by 2024/25.
Addressing the absence of the opposition, Cllr Fuller told the meeting: "You will know from the agenda the item is to consider a report from the Independent Group leader.
"Unfortunately he has declined to attend this evening to fill out some of the information on these items. So I'm going to propose we don't spend a great deal of time on it because, frankly I'm sure you've reached the same conclusions, there's more questions than answers being provided in this report itself, and without being able to question the opposition group leader's proposals, I'm not sure there is anything here we can adopt into our budget this evening before suggesting it to council".
He said after the meeting: "It's a shame that having gone to the effort of producing some alternative budget ideas that nobody from the opposition was prepared to come along to present them to the cabinet - for which there was an agenda item - to allow us to consider including any of them in our budget. I hope they reconsider for next year".
Chair of the overview and scrutiny committee, Conservative Cllr Douglas Dew, said opposition members did attend his committee when they considered the budget and alternative budget proposals. Addressing their alternative budget proposals, he said his committee "were not overly convinced that it was an alternative budget," saying there were few changes, and they could "either see no merit in them or we were already doing them".
He added "I think it's important if they are bringing proposals forward to come along and explain them".
Speaking about the council's general finances, the executive councillor for resources also told the cabinet: "It's a budget that faces the short-term realities that we find ourselves in, and that is an ongoing squeeze of local government finances".
He said the Conservatives' election victory in the north has reduced the incentive for the government to shift local government funding to places like Cambridgeshire.
"In light of the general election result we are right to have maintained the very cautious approach that we have had to fair funding," he said, going on to say "the political landscape has changed very dramatically in the past six weeks and I very much doubt the Conservative party will be wanting to distribute money from northern authorities in the direction of places like ours.
"So we have already taken some tough medicine in this budget, and in the previous budget in preparing ourselves for the fact that fair funding may not look for Cambridgeshire everything that we may want it to do.
"It also recognises that we are not going to see that landscape change anytime soon. The pressures of the NHS, the pressures on education and the police force and the Home Office - I think will mean that what money is available will continue to go in that direction".
He argued the "tough medicine" taken by the council means it now has a sustainable future.