‘We’re facing difficult decisions’

AN end to free parking, hikes in charges and cuts to discounts on council tax bills are all in prospect as South Gloucestershire Council faces “incredibly difficult decisions” about its finances.

The council needs to fill a £7.7 million hole in its finances before setting next year’s budget and council tax.

It has launched a series of consultations asking residents how money can be saved, from introducing charges for on and off-street car parking to cutting black bin collections and library opening hours.

The prospect of introducing car parking charges has already sparked a fierce row between the council’s Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition and opposition Conservatives over who is to blame.

A draft budget was approved in October, proposing an end to free parking, doubling green bin charges, a new admin fee for disabled blue-badge holders and a 20% rise in the cost of burial rights at cemeteries.

The proposals are now open for public consultation.

Consultants say a proposed increase in the garden waste charges from £30 to £60 would raise £1.3 million a year.

The report said introducing car park charges would raise £1.5m to £2m a year, following set-up costs of up to £800,000, but further work was needed to consider details such as whether long and short stay charges and resident permit schemes were needed.

Council co-leaders Claire Young (Lib Dem, Frampton Cotterell) and Ian Boulton (Labour, Staple Hill and Mangotsfield) said they wanted the consultation to be meaningful but agreed the savings and revenue targets would be “frustrating” for many residents.

Cllr Young said: “We are going to be able to balance our budget for the coming year, but not without taking some incredibly difficult decisions that will affect much-loved and relied-upon services.

“We do have choices ahead, but none of them will be easy.

“The reality is that councils across the country are badly underfunded by central government, who seem content to pass the responsibility for increasing amounts of services onto local authorities without the money to pay for them, and to blame councils for increasing council taxes to balance the books.”

Cllr Boulton added: “We will have to prioritise, and that’s why we want to talk to and hear from residents during the consultations to come, about how they want us to act on their behalf.”

Arguments about who is to blame for the proposed charges boiled over when the draft budget was approved, on October 5.

The Lib Dem-Labour coalition says the budget approved in February, before control of the authority changed hands at May’s local elections, included £7m of “income generating targets” for next year, with up to £2m from parking charges.

Opposition Conservatives accused the coalition of “spreading deliberate mistruths” by pinning the proposed fees on the former Tory administration.

Tory group leader Cllr Sam Bromiley said: “I can categorically state on the record now that the budget approved by council in February did not seek to introduce car parking charges in South Gloucestershire.

“The budget contained a review of some potential income generating schemes with the aim of identifying other opportunities to raise income, but when parking charges were raised during the resource allocation process, we Conservatives when in administration chose to remove it. To paint us as the architects of parking charges is incredibly dishonest.”

However Cllr Young insisted: “Officers have assured us that the income generation targets assume the inclusion of parking charges.”

Cabinet member for planning, regeneration and infrastructure Lib Dem Cllr Chris Willmore said if the Tories had a way of raising money without parking charges, she was “all ears”.

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service