Council tax and social rents to increase as WHBC approves budget for the year

Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council leader Cllr Tony Kingsbury faces calls to resign.

Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council leader Cllr Tony Kingsbury - Credit: WHBC

Councillors in Welwyn Hatfield have approved a new budget for the year, including a £60m investment into building affordable housing.

The budget will see council tax and social rents increase, but the leader of the council said the proposals balanced ambition with sensible financial management.

Opposition groups said the investment into the borough doesn’t go far enough and claimed residents are paying more and getting less from the local authority as a result of central government cuts.

As part of the budget, the borough council will increase their share of council tax by £4.95 a year, taking the average Band D property to £224.10.

The council’s housing rents will also increase by inflation and one per cent in accordance with Government legislation, resulting in an average rent of £113.92 a week.

Other fee rises include a £5 increase in parking permit fees, as well as the same increase for the collection of garden waste.

The biggest single investment in the budget is a £60m loan for the recently-established Now Housing. The council-owned company began trading in December 2020 to build affordable homes for those lower down the housing waiting list, and this investment is part of £84m committed to the company over the next four years.

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The council is also budgeting £13.6m on major repairs for its housing stock, up from £8.5m last year, and £12.5m on the redevelopment of Howlands House and Minister House sheltered accommodation.

Council leader Cllr Tony Kingsbury said he was “proud” of the budget, which will not include any frontline cuts.

Cllr Kingsbury said: “This meeting tonight is about setting our budget in the council within our funding constraints we currently have. When you look at it after the aftermath of two years of a pandemic nobody was expecting and given the constraints and given the difficulties, I’m proud of what we’ve done here and this budget does maintain frontline services.

“I think it’s a track record we can be proud of. It is encouraging that we can achieve our savings and look forward to positive outcomes with our modernisation programme that is already bearing some fruit. It was really encouraging to see the recent [Local Government Association] peer review acknowledge our good track record of financial management.”

Cllr Kingsbury added: “I think this budget demonstrates the prudent financial management we have and have always had when we’ve run this council, balanced with an ambition to move forward new projects and work hard and deliver for the best for our residents.”

In response to concerns about the increase, executive member Cllr Duncan Bell said the increases were necessary to meet the council’s costs when providing the services, and the authority does not make a profit from the charges.

The council has also highlighted a £25,000 saving from not printing bin calendars, and instead featuring updates in the council’s magazine, while the local authority also expects to bring in £60,000 from introducing new permit parking zones across the borough.

Other projects to be funded this year by the council include a £220,000 investment in number plate recognition vehicles to enforce parking zones, and £650,000 on new electric charging points.

The budget also factors in £50,000 to fight any public inquiry into the rejected plans to build flats on the site of the BioPark in Welwyn Garden City. While the developers have confirmed their intention to appeal, this has not yet been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate.

Labour group leader Cllr Kieran Thorpe said it was “nonsense” to suggest services hadn’t been cut by the council in recent years as a result of funding constraints from the central government.

Cllr Thorpe argued the end of free parking, outsourcing of bin collections and the loss of council-run facilities such as nightclubs or fireworks displays was evidence of a decline in spending power.

He concluded: “Years later and now in this much expanded Welwyn Hatfield, with so many more people living here, so many more taxpayers, and so many more businesses, we don’t do any of those things. Where’s the progress in that? There simply is none, and it’s reducing year-on-year-on-year. 

“Since 2010, this council’s core funding has reduced by nearly 65 per cent. When does it end? Does it end? Do councils end up being tax collectors and contract managers and nothing more?”

Cllr Glyn Hayes said “everything that can be hyped up has been, and everything that can be cut has been” and suggested the council should invest in the night-time economy to drive growth across the borough.

Cllr Paul Zukowskyj raised specific concerns about the scrapping of printed bin calendars, the proposed savings made when arranging the council’s contracts, and a reduction in staff costs within public health and protection.

Cllr Zukowskyj said: “I do think it’s a little bit rich that the drawdown of general fund reserves is apparently now fine when, for the last few years, the administration said how disastrous it would be when we proposed making very slight modifications to that to improve services to our residents.” 

The Liberal Democrat group brought forward an amendment to establish a programme to convert unused garage sites into affordable housing and fund a new Climate Change Officer and provide more income to the council. 

The amendment claimed there are 1,200 unused garages in the borough owned by the council, and this could contribute to the building of 200 new social homes. 

Cllr Zukowskyj claimed the council’s response to the climate emergency is “reliant on grant money from elsewhere or signing up for documents”, and a new senior would officer would result in more significant action. However, the move failed by 22-13 with six abstentions. 

Councillors voted to approve the original budget proposals by 23-18.