Express & Star

Hike in council tax on the cards for Stafford residents

Stafford Borough Council is set to increase its tax on residents by almost three per cent from April – despite the authority looking to end the financial year with a surplus of more than £2 million.

Stafford Borough Council's Civic Centre at Riverside Stafford. Photo: Staffordshire LDR Kerry Ashdown

While some councils in the Midlands are battling to balance the books, Stafford Borough Council is in a "robust" financial position, senior members have been told at their latest cabinet meeting.

The authority is proposing a 2.99 per cent increase in council tax for borough residents in 2024/25 – up from the 1.9 per cent rise last year.

The latest increase would mean residents living in Band D properties would pay £173.76 for borough council services for the year – an extra £5.04 per year, or about 10p per week.

The budget proposals were presented to the council’s cabinet on January 4. A final decision on the budget and council tax level for 2024/25 is due to be made by the full council at a future meeting.

Higher interest rates may have been a challenge for many residents during the past year, such as those with mortgages, but they have led to a “windfall” for the borough council, cabinet member for resources Ralph Cooke said.

The cash generated by investment is set to be put into three different reserves – including one to tackle climate change.

Speaking at last week's cabinet meeting, Councillor Cooke said: "The overall council position for 2023/24 reflects a very strong performance on investment income during the year, driven by higher interest rates.

"But do please be aware that these benefits are windfalls – they can’t be guaranteed for future years.

"At the moment though the forecast is for a £2.2m surplus and that results in a favourable forecast outurn for 2023/24 of £2m, which is good news. But we can’t keep spending it, we don’t know what is going to happen in future years.

"Three new reserves are being created from the investment windfall. The first one is an investment reserve and that’s going to be £1.5m, to provide money to invest in council assets and services.

"A business initiative reserve is going to be half a million pounds. That is for service areas to build robust business cases to bid for resources to support service delivery; these business cases will be presented to an evaluation panel to ensure maximum value for money is achieved.

"Then there is climate change – £250,000 to be set aside to the existing climate change reserve, bringing the total of that reserve to £275,000.

"That is a lot of money going into reserves in order to improve our services, processes and what we’re doing about climate change and all three are one-off reserves."

Members of the council’s Resources Scrutiny Committee questioned the proposed use of the surplus funds however when they considered the budget plans on Tuesday.

Committee chairman Councillor Mark Winnington said: "I would hope the windfall paid for by residents of the borough goes back to residents of the borough.

"The cost of living crisis is impacting people now with the interest rates. If the fact we as a borough council have an extra £2m coming into our coffers is to be a good thing, we need to re-distribute that."

Councillor Gareth Jones described the reserve proposals as "nebulous".

He added: "I am a resident of Stafford Borough and it doesn’t seem to me there is going to be any significant benefit to me as a resident.

"I am being told behind the scenes there will be a lot of work done on improving infrastructure in the future but nothing that is going to take place in terms of helping with the increase in cost of living.

"There is an opportunity here to have dome something and I don’t think you have taken the opportunity."

Cabinet members welcomed the proposals on Thursday however.

Councillor Ian Fordham said: "I find this a very positive budget – I think it’s one that should give both members and our residents confidence the council can achieve its priorities with appropriate funding in place."

Councillor Tony Pearce said: “I would like to welcome the substantial amount put into battling climate change. It enables us, for the first time, to be able to make real changes that will reduce our carbon footprint.”

Council leader Aidan Godfrey welcomed the news of the budget proposals and said it was "exciting times" for Stafford.

He added: "It is a very good budget and it sets us up nicely to keep our priorities going – the main one being the town centre.

"We have got lots going on in the town centre; we are in the process of buying the old Co-op building and the Guildhall, we have got the new Stafford Station Approach coming online and various other projects in the town going on as well.

"It’s really exciting times for Stafford. And this budget will really help us press on with those changes.”