Fears of town council U-turn on its precept

Concerns have been voiced that Berwick Town Council may backtrack on an earlier decision to freeze its precept in 2016/17.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 06:18
Georgina Hill

Councillor Georgina Hill raised her fears after it emerged the council had not followed the correct procedure in making the original decision last November.

With significant savings needed to produce a balanced budget, Cllr Hill fears the council may readdress the issue at its full meeting later this month.

She said: “In November we agreed to freeze the precept. That was reported in the press and received a very positive reaction from the public. We agreed that if we couldn’t balance the budget we would use some of our substantial reserves although I did think there was room for much more efficiency.

“This hasn’t been reported to Northumberland County Council (NCC) which has been chasing it up and we are in danger of missing the deadline where NCC end up fixing the budget and precept for us. I am concerned why NCC were not informed of that decision.

“It’s like one of those things where we will come back to you when we get the right decision.

“I think it’s an affront to democracy and I think there is a move in certain quarters to increase the precept despite that decision. It’s a breach of trust to the public. One of the things we have been trying to do is restore public confidence.”

She said she had received advice that once the precept was set the decision was final.

She complained about £100,000 of planned expendure in the draft budget which had not been recommended by the finance committee.

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“What this proposed budget will do is have a massive impact on reserves and/or precept,” she said. “It goes against what we had decided in November which was a budget with a shortfall of £32,000 where I thought we could use our reserves.”

She called for councillors who wanted to reverse the decision to ‘stand up and be counted’.

Councillor Paul Hodgson, committee chairman, confirmed the council had not followed the correct precept protocol under the Local Government Finance Act.

He explained: “You can’t make the precept decision until you have a final budget. The full council needs to decide on that final budget and then, if there is a question tabled at the full council meeting in relation to the precept, you need six councillors to overturn the resolution.

“We would then correctly submit our application for either the precept to remain where it is or for it to be raised.

“I am not hearing this message that it’s definitely going to be raised. My concern is that if we were challenged currently on putting a precept into place with the draft budget then we could be open to some severe criticism and challenged because process and procedures haven’t been followed properly.”

He said there was still time to make the decision at full council on February 22.

“It should have been done well before now but because of debate around the budget that has not been possible,” he said.