Haverhill town clerk Will Austin’s address to St Edmundsbury Council

Haverhill town clerk Will Austin
Haverhill town clerk Will Austin

St Edmundsbury Borough Council voted through it’s 2014/15 budget at Tuesday’s (February 25) meeting after it had been reccomended by cabinet, with Haverhill clerk Will Austin speaking out against the budget on behalf of the town council.

The budget approved the removal of the council tax support grant of £128,993 to Haverhill, which it is being phased out over four years by cutting a quarter – £32,233 – annually.

This cut led to Haverhill Town Council increasing its precept by 3.69 per cent – 7p a week or £3.98 a year for a Band D home.

The statement Mr Austin planned to read out, but was unable to read out in full, read: “I won’t trouble you with an explanation of the council tax support grant as you have heard this at length in Cllr Ray’s earlier response.

“He also quoted Brandon Lewis MP, the Local Government minister.

“While on the subject of quotes from Mr Lewis, I would remind you that he also said – in the same statement ‘...we have been clear that we expect billing authorities’ – that’s you – ‘to carry on passing on support to town councils and parishes to help mitigate any reduction in their taxbase due to the local council tax support scheme’.

“He wrote this letter to you last week expressing his disappointment at councils that are not passing on the funding.

“In December you decided to withdraw this funding from towns and parishes, arguing (a) that it is time towns and parishes faced some of the funding pressures you already face, and (b) that the funding settlement figures from DCLG do not separately identify the element paid to you for support to towns and parishes.

“I must point out that town and parish councils do already have major funding pressures.

“In Haverhill the town council has taken over Haverhill Arts Centre and Leiston Community Centre from the borough at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

“We are also creating new youth facilities, again at no cost to the taxpayer.

“All this in the context of withdrawn funding for Haverhill Arts Centre and Christmas lights by the Borough Council.

“The purpose of my original question was to remind you that it’s just plain wrong to say that you don’t know how much the Government is paying you for this grant.

“These [spreadsheets he presented] are copies of the funding figures issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, showing exactly how much they expect you to pass on – £166,000 in 2014/15 and the same in 2015/16.

“It is actually a little less than you paid in 2013/14, but even if you paid this lower amount, Haverhill Town Council would see a reduction of £17,000 over the next two years instead of the £64,000 you have decided to withdraw in that time.

“I can understand some of the confusion caused by Brandon Lewis, minister for local government, who has said that ‘the council tax support grant will not be separately visible’ in the formula grant settlement, but these figures show quite clearly that the amount is separately visible.

“You know that – well you do now that I’ve told you – and trying to suggest anything different to town and parish councils is just making you look stupid, arrogant or greedy, depending on how people choose to explain your decision.

“Of course I’m not saying you are any of those things, but they do reflect the views of Haverhill residents who have spoken to me.

“You are not alone in finding this a difficult issue.

“Other districts are now reviewing their own hurried decisions on withdrawing the council tax support grant.

“Most recently Breckland District Council have accepted that they didn’t realise that the funding had been passed down by Government and have decided to look again at the problem.

“I know how much you dislike making comparisons between Bury and Haverhill, and normally I steer clear of them too.

“But in this case you do need to consider the economic impact of taking funding away from Haverhill and other parishes.

“The fact is that the Borough spends the bulk of its budget in Bury – the Cabinet Member for Resources and the accountants will dispute that, but as they don’t keep figures for what is spent where, they’ll have to go with what we do know.

“You spend £1.3m on the Apex but have withdrawn funding from Haverhill Arts Centre altogether.

“Your main offices are here in Bury so the bulk of the £19m you spend on employees and premises goes into the Bury economy.

“75 per cent of what you spend on visitor parks goes on Abbey Gardens and Nowton Park in Bury.

“You spend £300,000 on Moyse’s Hall Museum but you have taken away your only funding for heritage in Haverhill – a measly £5,000 for the local history group.

“You spend four times as much on Shopmobility in Bury as in Haverhill.

“You fund Bury in Bloom but not Haverhill in Bloom.

“You pay £80,000 for Bury Festival but nothing for festivals in Haverhill.

“You spend £1m a year on the upkeep of West Suffolk House and £0.1m on your offices in Haverhill.

“You spend twice as much on the Bury Depot as on the Haverhill Depot.

“Haverhill has three quarters of the population of Bury and it won’t be long before it’s as big as Bury, but there is a huge imbalance in your spending priorities.

“Restoring the council tax support grant would be a drop in the ocean in repairing that imbalance, but at least it would be a sign that you do actually care.

“At the moment you just seem to be taking money from towns and parishes to spend in Bury.

“With your blessing, Haverhill Town Council has stepped in to fill much of this spending gap – especially in the areas of arts, culture and leisure.

“Withdrawing this grant funding will send a message to Haverhill that you just don’t care.

“Of course I only speak for Haverhill, but you can guarantee that parishes across the borough will be feeling much the same.

“Before Christmas they came in huge numbers to your parish conference – normally attended by one clerk and his or her dog – to complain about the decision.

“Nearly all of them will be raising their own precepts because of your decision.

“You can crow all we like about a zero increase at the Borough, but in your minds you will know that all you really did was to force someone else to increase the council tax on your behalf.

“Ironically, Haverhill and other parishes don’t actually want your money in the long run – none of us want to come cap in hand to you every year asking for funds.

“What we do want, and what we can reasonably expect, is that while the Government is giving the borough money to pass on to parishes, that you pass it on in full.

“If and when the Government signals that the money is no longer going to be paid, then we can talk about stopping the payment.

“Finally I want to remind you of this letter – sent to all billing authorities last Friday by Brandon Lewis, expressing disappointment at councils that are not passing on the support funding, and asking you ‘in the spirit of localism... ...to pass down funding to avoid indirectly putting pressure on your council taxpayers’.

“Even the Government says you’ve got it wrong.

“I explained this to my 12-year old son at the weekend, and he said ‘Dad, that’s like Grandma giving you £10 to give me for my birthday, and you spending it at the pub’.

“Not quite the analogy I’d have used, but I was struggling to find reason to disagree with him.

“So with this in mind, I ask you to consider an amendment to your budget to reinstate the full council tax support funding.

“I calculate the effect to be an increase of 0.4 per cent in your net expenditure, small by comparison with the goodwill and local economic benefits you will reap from St Edmundsbury parishes.

“Do this tonight and I will immediately call a town council meeting to agree a zero per cent precept increase in Haverhill.”

Cllr David Nettleton did say the Bury in Bloom runs at a surplus.

For all the latest news see Thursday’s (March 6) Echo.