Oxfordshire’s Fair Deal Alliance – the ruling body of county councillors made up of Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green Party members – yesterday (Tuesday, February 8) voted through its first budget since taking control last year.
It includes more than £1 million set aside to tackle climate change, £8 million on 20 miles-per-hour (mph) zones, £6 million on two new children’s centres and £800,000 to reduce the amount that people on disability benefits pay for care.
Conservatives councillors voted against the budget, saying that a five per cent increase in council tax – a rise of £78.50 per year for the average home – was too much amid a cost of living crisis.
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They also opposed spending on the 20 mph zones and the trebling of county council parking charges in Jericho, Oxford, while questioning the validity of large-scale borrowing that Councillor Calum Miller (Lib Dem, Otmoor), the cabinet member for finance who has set the county budget for 2022-23, has blamed on “underfunded” projects from when the Tories were in office.
Cllr Miller’s predecessor Councillor David Bartholomew (Con, Sonning Common) said: “Needless to say, the opposition will not be supporting this budget but we are resigned to the fact it will get through which is why we haven’t wasted the time of officers on preparing an alternative budget.
“We will closely monitor the financial fallout of these misplaced decisions on a monthly basis.”
Councillor Brad Baines (Lab, Isis) said it was “remarkable” that no counter proposal had been put forward.
“It seems the Conservatives, despite taking significant amounts of public money for the privilege of being in opposition, have not done the decent thing by bringing forward an alternative despite denouncing some of the things in this budget," he said.
Cllr Miller said the council tax rise was “not the choice of this alliance, the increase was baked by that party opposite last year".
Earlier in the debate, it had been suggested by Cllr Bartholomew that council tax increases could be limited to 3.5 per cent by delaying new spending plans.
Cllr Miller said the difference would be around “£30 per year for the average property”, adding: "That compares to the increase in fuel costs which is estimated to be £692 next year, or the increase in National Insurance contributions of £252 for someone earning £30,000, or the loss of £20 per week for those in receipt of Universal Credit.
“We will have no lectures from the party opposite about a modest increase that allows us to deliver services and to raise the taxes they have insisted upon.”
He said opposition to borrowing to complete highways projects such as roads to support new housing and the rebuild the railway bridge at Kennington, Oxford, was "confused" and was unapologetic in pointing out the Fair Deal Alliance had been elected on the basis of promises to deliver services.
“Those are priorities, to improve the services we offer to some of the most vulnerable in our county and to improve our ability to tackle the climate crisis,” he said.
“We will put climate change at the heart of what we do, we will respond to chronic shortages and delays in caring for adults and children, we will take steps to encourage more active travel and the use of public transport and we will act to tackle inequality in our county.”