Merton Council Tax Freeze Gets Go-Ahead

Borough council sets budget in stormy meeting

The expected Merton council tax freeze was agreed tonight (March 5) after a 3-hour budget meeting.

It means the council tax rate in the borough has been frozen for four years in a row.

Amendments by the Conservative, UKIP and Lib-Dem groups were voted down in an, at times, stormy meeting.

The Lib-Dems had proposed four amendments to the plans, including one to restore funding for discretionary freedom passes to support people with mental health difficulties. They said this would cost £188,000 and was affordable through the underspent Adult Social Care budget.

As this was voted down, UKIP Councillor Suzanne Evans tweeted: "Labour and MPWIR (Merton Part Ward Independent Residents) voting against restoring Freedom Pass for people with a mental illness despite money being easy to find. Shameful."

The Conservative opposition put forward a council tax cut with a series of proposals it called its Alternative Budget. It said would allow a 2.5% cut, costing £1.876m each year from the council's forthcoming 2014-18 Business Plan.

Councillor Oonagh Moulton, Conservative leader, said: "The Labour council has shown that it is unable to budget.  It has overcharged residents for services by an average of £12.5 million every year. In just three years, Merton's council taxpayers have been overcharged by a massive £37.5million. That's £37.5million of our residents’ money sitting in a Council bank account during tough financial times."

But MPWIR Councillor Peter Southgate said the saving proposed by the Tories would only represent a weekly 49p pint of milk, and a couple of Mars bars each year, for a Band D house in the borough. The Conservative's amendments were voted down.

A MPWIR amendment on teacher parking permits, which were proposed to increase in price from £188 to £193 was approved. It meant the proposed £5 increase was cancelled.

UKIP put forward a £70 one-off rebate to 75,000 "eligible" households. This also failed to gain support.

After the tax-freezing budget was voted through, Cabinet member for finance, Councillor Mark Allison, said: "By planning our finances over a longer term, we are able to freeze council tax for a fourth year in a row and protect the most important services we provide like libraries and refuse collection, expanding our schools and rebuilding Morden pool. Residents are at the heart of the decisions we make and the services we prioritise in these challenging economic times."

Lib Dem lead Councillor Iain Dysert responded: "I think it's hugely depressing that, despite there being millions of pounds budgeted but not actually spent each year, the local Labour group could not find it in their hearts to restore discretionary Freedom Passes for those with mental health conditions.

"Similarly, cuts to Early Years services and the Homeless Prevention grant did not need to go through. This really is a failure to think ahead on the part of the administration. All the evidence shows that the earlier you give extra support and help to children, the bigger a difference it makes - so this cut just seems crazy. Cutting the homelessness prevention grant is just storing up problems for the future, and is going to cost the public more in the long term.

"Our plan to use some of the money in reserves to set up a "Merton Wellbeing Innovation Fund", to pilot new approaches to help people to improve their health and well-being and reduce isolation through promoting independence, was also rejected out of hand."

Merton UKIP Leader, Councillor Suzanne Evans, said: "Back in 2010, the Labour Cabinet Member for Finance backed a rebate, saying he thought 'council tax is a regressive tax that hurts the poorest so giving some of it back will help'.

"It's sheer hypocrisy for him to change his mind now. I’m not surprised however that the Tories didn’t vote for our proposal; although they put forward an idea for a 2.5% cut in Council Tax which would have given a rebate of £70 to those living in the wealthiest parts of the borough in the highest tax-paying band, they clearly weren’t prepared to let everyone benefit."

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March 7, 2014