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Council tax rise and controversial cut to Citizens Advice funding as Suffolk County Council budget approved

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Suffolk County Council’s budget featuring a four per cent council tax rise and a controversial decision to cut Citizens Advice cash has been given the final go-ahead.

The budget was approved in a lengthy three-and-a-half hour debate in Ipswich this afternoon, where the proposals were approved by 47 votes to 17.

It means that from April, Suffolk taxpayers will see a 2.99 per cent increase on their county council tax, as well as an additional one per cent increase on social care precept.

Endeavour House, Ipswich (7198261)
Endeavour House, Ipswich (7198261)

Coupled with the 12.7 per cent policing precept increase and expected three per cent rises at district councils, most Band B properties will face an overall £65 increase on their bill.

The decision to introduce phased cuts over two years to the Citizens Advice grant, equating to more than £180,000 next year, was also approved – although an announcement by clinical commissioning groups earlier in the week threw them a lifeline by offering to cover that grant for 2019/20.

Conservative councillor Richard Smith, cabinet member for finance and assets, said he had to make 'difficult decisions' and added: “We are doing our best to set a fair budget for everybody in Suffolk.

“I think we have done that and I am proud of what we have achieved.

“We will work hard in the next 12 months to bring that budget into reality and we will stick to it.”

We are doing our best to set a fair budget for everybody in Suffolk - Cllr Richard Smith

The overall budget marks an increase of £15m from this year’s, with the cabinet stressing the need to invest that money into the county’s most vulnerable people – through children and adult care budgets.

But the budget features more than £10m in savings from a variety of areas, including road gritting, bus timetables, maintaining road signs and lines, and Duke of Edinburgh Award accreditation among other areas.

Councillor Sarah Adams, leader of the Labour group, said: “The Tories may be delighted that NHS money has bailed them out on this occasion, but while they celebrate with a glass of champagne and congratulate themselves on a ‘job well done’, the Sword of Damocles still hangs over Citizens Advice.

“They know that this is nothing more than a quick fix and that it does not solve the real issue of long-term sustainability.

“It is clear that the Tories are happy to pass the buck to other public sector organisations, rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.

“If this is how they treat the CAB, then I am fearful for the future funding of charities and other voluntary organisations.”

While the budget featured phased cuts over two years to the Citizens Advice grant, which equates to around £368,000 for those 24 months, cabinet member for environment and public protection Richard Rout confirmed that any decision on Citizens Advice funding for 2020/21 would be made in next year’s budget setting process, and vowed to continue working with the various branches to help find a solution.

A petition of more than 6,500 signatures urging council not to hit Citizens Advice grant funding was presented ahead of the meeting, while protestors against the cuts demonstrated outside Endeavour House.

The Labour group had tabled an amendment to the Citizens Advice element of the budget, proposing a ringfencing of £2,500 from each councillor’s locality budget – a £8,000 pot each councillor gets to award to projects in their division – to fund Citizens Advice. The amendment was rejected, as just 12 councillors voted in favour of it.

We will all feel the effects of these cuts - Cllr Andrew Stringer

Councillor Andrew Stringer, leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group, questioned where the ambition was to increase income that would mean fewer cuts were needed.

“The Conservative’s budget has absolutely no vision for the future of Suffolk,” he said.

“Instead, they are making hugely damaging cuts that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable in our county.

“They are cutting funding for Citizens Advice, they are cutting bus services in rural areas and they are cutting money for road maintenance. We will all feel the effects of these cuts.

“At the same time, the Conservatives have wasted millions of Suffolk taxpayers’ money. £8.3m was lost on the failed Upper Orwell Crossings, Barley Homes was abandoned without any profit made for the council, and numerous infrastructure projects have gone massively over budget. No sane person could consider that to be ‘prudent financial management’.

“There is a poverty of ambition in this budget that will lead to greater poverty for our residents.”