I have talked in my blog many times before about the challenge we face as a direct result of Government cuts to our funding. I have also talked, only in the last couple of weeks, about the tough decisions we have already made and will have to make in the future. We know that these decisions do have a direct impact on our residents and we do understand that with that can come a degree of uncertainty and worry.
That’s why I want to be as open as I can with our residents about our thinking on Council Tax this year.
It won’t surprise you to know this is something we have been discussing and considering for some time. Sadly we are left with few options when it comes to setting our Council Tax for 2016/17 following announcements by the Chancellor, Mr Osborne, which made it clear that increases would be needed to cover the rising costs of adult social care. The reality is that his suggested 2% Council Tax increase won’t be able to smooth over the cracks caused by his Government’s destructive attacks on our finances as he hopes. In Knowsley, the increase will raise around £550k, which I’m afraid won’t go far in replacing the amount of savings we’ve already had to make as a result of the cuts made by the Government – £75m so far and counting!
For five years we have been able to freeze Council Tax for Knowsley residents. We recognised that local people were struggling because of the economic downturn and where we could help take the pressure off household finances we wanted to do so.
Unfortunately now I feel this borough has reached a tipping point. The facts are stark. The Government has already imposed cuts of £75m on Knowsley since 2010, with more to come – savings in the region of £19m need to be made over the next year, and around another £11m the following year.
Let me be clear that this is money taken from the people of Knowsley by Government – money which is used to pay for those services which local people need, want or expect. This is the money we use to empty bins, maintain parks, open libraries, look after our roads, support schools and provide social care to the most vulnerable children and adults in our borough, to name but a few.
Those services cannot be paid for without money and the harsh reality is we have much less money but the same – or greater – demand for these essential services. This is the headache that all of us involved with the council face every day, no one more so that my colleague Cllr Bill Weightman, who holds the portfolio for Finance and Governance, and who has had the unenviable task of overseeing each and every saving so far, doing everything he can to minimise the ‘pain’ that will be felt by residents.
So now we have to make a choice. There has to be a balance between the desire to keep Council Tax bills low and the pressing need to provide services that local people rely on. By 2020 the Government will have taken our Revenue Support Grant away from us entirely. These Government cuts are real, they are happening right now and our residents will feel them in the coming years more than ever.
Given all that it would be irresponsible where we not to look at every option available to secure enough money to pay for these important services. Therefore we will have to give serious consideration to raising the Council Tax by around 3.99% this year. This would include the 2% ‘Osborne tax’ for adult social care. It is worth noting though that, thanks to our previous Council Tax freezes, our residents will still be paying one of the lowest Council Tax rates in the City Region.
My colleagues and I remain determined to deliver the very best services that we can to residents within the very tight and restrictive financial climate we are living in. That will mean tough choices at every turn, but we owe it to the people of Knowsley to get this right.