The councillor in charge of finances at Oxfordshire County Council has launched a staunch defence of spending plans and called the opposition’s alternatives to the council’s 2023/24 budget “casual, careless and callous”.
The portion of council tax that goes to the county will go up by 4.99 per cent from April – an extra £82 on an average band D property.
It will add more than £22 million to the funds the county expects to raise through council tax in the 2023/24 financial year’s budget, but around £8.9 million must go to adult social care.
Spending planned by the Fair Deal Alliance – the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green coalition in charge of the county – includes £4.4 million to deal with demand pressures in adult social care, £500,000 to speed up education, health and care plans (ECHPs) for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and £3 million to plant replacement trees felled during highways works.
The Conservative opposition put forward an alternative that would cut the rise in council tax to 3.99 per cent, giving back residents around £17 per year while also nudging up spending on SEND.
Cutbacks to balance the books centred around climate initiatives with more than £2 million proposed to be axed from tree planting.
Leader of the opposition Councillor Eddie Reeves (Con, Banbury Calthorpe) argued the council “should only be spending to the extent that it needs to in order to safeguard frontline services and protect the vulnerable”.
“Reasonable people know that claims of poverty pleading and discretionary spending cannot be true at the same time,” he said.
Councillor Calum Miller (Lib Dem, Otmoor), the county’s cabinet member for finance, hit back, listing proposed cuts and insisting that what would be given back in council tax would be taken away by Tory plans to raise other fees and charges, including for school meals.
“The proposals put to us by the Conservative and Independent Alliance, I’m afraid, cannot be serious. They are casual, careless and callous,” he said.
“Councillor Reeves and others on the other side refer to the very limited number of services they see fit to provide. This diminished version of what public services should be is not one shared on this side of the chamber nor by members of the public.
“They want to cut services – scrap a £1.5 million investment in transport hubs, £800,000 to replace fire appliances (engines). They want to slash £153,000 for library services. They want to delay the delivery of a county-wide freight strategy.
“They want to increase all fees and charges by an additional five per cent, for example, parking charges or a community organisation hiring a county council minibus, or the price of school meals.
“A five per cent hike in school meals would take them from £2.34 to £2.46 per day – this increase would be £23.40 per child, per year, to parents, much more than what the Conservatives say they would save by reducing the council tax increase by one per cent.”
He added that investments in energy efficiency measures in schools, tree planting and electric vehicles “would generate savings for the council in the long run” and that “84 per cent of councils have been forced to take the maximum council tax increase, including many Conservative-led authorities like Hampshire”.
He said a council report had said that the Tory plans offered “less financial resilience than the proposals of this administration”, concluding: “This is a hard year for households across Oxfordshire, but I believe they recognise the value of services provided by this council and know that public services have been cut to the bone by this government.
“Faced with a choice between yet more cuts from the Conservatives and the balanced budget of this administration with more investment in services, I believe our budget delivers for the residents of Oxfordshire, and that is why I oppose the Conservative amendments.”
All councillors present voted along party lines, with Liberal, Labour and Green members passing the original budget while the Conservative version fell.