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Opposition Liberal Democrats in Newcastle to propose Budget amendments to limit council tax rise, protect blue badge parking for the disabled, and prioritise community responses to the pandemic and food poverty

March 2, 2021 9:39 PM

Zoom call - NLD Leader and Dep LeaderNewcastle City Council's Liberal Democrats Opposition will set out a series of amendments at Wednesday's Budget to set a lower council tax increase than the Labour administration's planned 4.95% rise, together with measures to protect blue badge holders from parking charges, prioritise community-led responses to the Covid pandemic and food poverty, and provide loans to support small businesses on local High Streets.

The Liberal Democrats budget proposals seek to rebalance the council's two-year budget plans by rephasing the element of council tax ringfenced for adult social care by earmarking a 2.5% rise from this May, with a smaller 0.5% rise in 2022/23, enabling a lower council tax rise of 4.45% this year.

The Opposition is also seeking to introduce a Workplace Parking Levy along the lines of Nottingham's successful initiative, which requires employers providing more than 10 parking spaces for employees to raise revenue earmarked for increasing maintenance of roads and pavements and expanding low-emission public transport, along with removing Labour's plan to charge disabled blue badge holders for parking in city car parks.

Liberal Democrats leader of the Opposition Cllr Nick Cott (centre right in picture) said:

"Too often the Labour council leadership prefers to complain about local government funding and make council taxpayers pay more and more each year for increasingly diminishing and unresponsive services. We are showing that there are alternatives to Labour's "we know best" attitude and that different choices can be made. We are setting out an alternative approach which avoids the soft option of maximising the council tax increase and recognises the challenging financial position many households in the City continue to face in 2021 and beyond. We are conscious that under Labour, council funding for the voluntary sector has been shrinking year on year. Our approach will prioritise voluntary and community group approaches to tackling food poverty and post-pandemic challenges for children and families, as well as to small businesses on neighbourhood High Streets as they fight to survive the effects of the pandemic."

Liberal Democrats Opposition spokesperson for resources, Cllr Colin Ferguson (pictured centre left), said:

"Our proposals recognise the importance of limiting council tax rises this year, as we are concerned that household budgets are hard pressed as a result of the pandemic. We want to protect the pounds and pence in people's pockets. Council tax is not a fair tax, as it does little to reflect ability to pay and results in tax rises for everyone, regardless of the extent to which they use council services. Whilst we continue to campaign for fundamental reform of local government finance, we want to demonstrate that it is possible to cushion the impact of Labour's onslaught on hard-pressed households which would see Band A household bills rise by £56 next year and Band D households asked to pay more than £2000 a year in council tax."

Liberal Democrats Opposition spokesperson for transport, Cllr Greg Stone said:

"The Opposition is asking the council to make real progress on sustainable transport and introduce a workplace parking levy which will help to reduce congestion and emissions, subsidise greener public transport options citywide, and tackle the spiralling backlog in maintenance of the city's roads and pavements. This approach is already working in Nottingham, where it creates vital revenue to fund electric bus services including park and ride facilities. Our amendments also eliminate the cruel proposal to charge blue badge disabled drivers to park in city car parks by subsidising it from the council's huge parking surplus. We know the cost of parking is not popular, but we believe that it is fairer to charge those who insist on parking in the city centre than charge everyone in the city more through council tax. Our plan helps to invest in pavements and pedestrians, rather than gimmicks like e-scooters."

The Liberal Democrat budget amendments are as follows:

Opposition Amendments to Item 7a and Associated Appendices

Amendment One: Council Tax Increases and Associated Budget Balancing

Changes to be made to Recommendation (e)
Rephase the introduction of the Adult Social Care Precept, implementing 2.5% in 2021-22, and the remainder (0.5%) in 2022-23, saving a small but significant amount from household budgets across the City in the coming year (£571k cost pressure).
The pressure to be offset as follows:
● Axing the Great North City Fund, with the one-off funds to be reallocated (£475k);
● Implementing a further increase in parking charges than originally proposed (an additional 10p per hour in selected car parks from 1st October), to generate an additional £96k.
Note: The Opposition recognises that the Council is increasingly dependent on council tax and business rates as a result of the Government's continued reduction in central grant funding. The Government has not provided a long-term solution to the pressures of Adult Social Care funding, making the Adult Social Care Precept an important source of income.
However, whilst increases may be inevitable, the financial challenges for the City's households caused by the pandemic create a unique situation that merits restraint. Given that the Government has allowed Councils to phase the precept in over two years, the Opposition believes this to be preferable in order to provide some financial easement for households in reduced circumstances.
The Opposition continues to question the efficacy of the Great North City Fund. We welcome the principle of reprioritisation, but no detail has been provided as to what this means in practice.

The scope to run large-scale events in the coming municipal year is restricted, given the road map for exiting lockdown and existing commitments. The Opposition is concerned that the Fund will remain under-utilised and provide questionable benefit. In the circumstances, it is preferable to discontinue this fund and redistribute it to more pressing priorities.

Amendment Two: Workplace Parking Levy

Additional Lines to be Added to Item 7a - Build Forward Better
Add a Workplace Parking Levy to the Budget proposals, with work on implementation to start immediately. This is not anticipated to have an impact on the budget for 2021-22, and would be cost neutral. Providing certain pre-pandemic assumptions remain valid, indicative figures suggest a surplus of £1.4m in a full financial year, based on modelling a similar implementation to Nottingham.
Primary legislation would be required, following consultation with the Government. Funds generated would need to be spent on ring-fenced transport priorities. This amendment proposes two priorities:
1. Funding the costs of reinstating free blue badge parking in future years (2022-23 at the earliest; c. £90k);
2. The remainder providing annual funding for sustainable transport improvements, and pavements and roads maintenance.

Note: The Opposition recognises that a Workplace Parking Levy may be unpopular at first, but in cities where this has been implemented, residents have quickly accepted it, and the additional funding generated has been able to be reinvested. The Opposition believes this is in line with public commitments from the Administration regarding air quality, the Climate Emergency and the aspirations in the Net Zero Newcastle plan.
The Opposition remains fundamentally opposed to punitive parking charges on disabled residents and visitors to the City. Reinstatement of free parking should remain a priority. Incentivisation and discouragement of city centre parking should shift- over the longer term- to supporting those that need to travel into the City by car, and providing cost-effective alternatives for those that do not. Working with Regional partners and lobbying the Government for sustainable transport investment should be a priority.
The backlog on the City's pavement and road repairs continues to increase. Additional Government funding is welcome, but not sufficient. Additional monies from the ring-fenced transport budget should be directed to priorities not otherwise covered, particularly pavements and residential roads.

Amendment Three: Community and Voluntary Sector Support

Changes to be made to Item 7a - Build Forward Better
Add an explicit commitment to leverage the funds for supporting children and families to overcome the challenges of the pandemic through the Community and Voluntary Sector. Funds to be disbursed through the Newcastle Fund (cost neutral).
Add an explicit commitment to leverage the funds for tackling food poverty through the Community and Voluntary Sector. Funds to be disbursed through the Newcastle Fund (cost neutral).
Note: The Opposition recognises the vital role the Community and Voluntary Sector plays in supporting our communities. By working in partnership with the Sector, the Council can achieve more than by working alone. Cuts to the Newcastle Fund have reduced the funding diverted to the Sector in recent years. The Opposition shares the Administration's ambitions in supporting children and families, and tackling food poverty, but feels these objectives are best tackled through leveraging Community and Voluntary Sector support.

Amendment Four: COVID-19 Rescue Loans Fund

Changes to made to Item 7a - Build Forward Better
Retask and broaden eligibility for the remaining £2.4m in the COVID-19 Rescue Loans Fund, making it available to support SMEs on local neighbourhood High Streets, in line with the Council's emerging 15-minute neighbourhood plans. Loans to be offered on similar conditions to the existing fund, remaining state-aid compliant.
Note: The COVID-19 Rescue Loans Fund was a reasonable response to the financial challenges posed to a number of organisations in the City at the time it was announced. However, subsequent Government support has reduced the need for this funding, as demonstrated by the low take up of available funds.
SMEs, particularly those on our local High Streets, continue to struggle as lockdown goes on. The Council should support an economic recovery across our whole City- not just the City Centre- by enabling SMEs to invest to support recovery.