Penarth’s Labour-controlled Town Council is proposing yet another inflation-busting rise in the Penarth local “precept” – the part of the annual council tax bill which is paid by 11,292 local residents .
Meanwhile the budgets for the heavily-criticised Christmas and Summer Festivals – and for “Picnic Penarth” – are being cut . The council-sponsored Christmas Late Night Shopping event is being axed and won’t be held next year.
The concluding vote on the issue also revealed a split in the Conservative Party ranks.
The council – which now employs an all-time high of no less than 20 staff – set a draft annual budget of £1,114,112 – the first time the town council’s budget has exceeded a million pounds a year – but then councillors had second thoughts about it.
The council is proposing to increase its 2017/18 budget by well over 10 times the current rate of inflation – hiking up its annual spend by 11% in just 12 months. An internal council report says the proposed budget for 2017/18 has been – as the report puts it – “uplifted” from £670,406 to £748,235.
That proposed council-tax-precept of £748,235 – (a tax on the people of Penarth) – represents an inflation-busting increase of 11% . [ The rate of UK inflation is currently 1.2%] .
To mitigate the effects of the increase in the Penarth council-tax local town precept, the council is withdrawing £45,000 from its general reserves to at least partially “offset” the amount it needs to extract from Penarth council-tax payers in 2017/18.
Misleadingly, Penarth Council uses the familiar and widely-discredited claim that on an “average” Band D property the prospective increase would only amount to an extra £5.95 a year. However as most houses in Penarth aren’t Band D homes ( most are in much higher banding levels), the town precept charge added to the overall council tax bill for most Penarth residents will be much greater than the so-called “average”.
When the council’s Leisure and Amenities Committee [which oversees the majority of the council’s activities including allotments, the cemetery, the Paget Rooms and other buildings, and organises the Summer and the Christmas Festivals] met last night – cost-cutting was in the air.
Hinting at what was to come, the leader of the leader of Penarth Council Cllr Mike Cuddy (Labour St Augustines) told members “We have explored whether there are opportunities to look afresh at some of the traditional activities” .
Cllr Cuddy – apparently referring to the Summer Festival – said “It’s apparent that some of those activities are costly and don’t draw the crowds as they once did”. He also said there were difficulties relating to “insurance and lorries and traffic management costs “. He said ” Some of the activities this year- which I participated-in as mayor – could be reduced” .
Cllr Cuddy said “We’ve come to the conclusion collectively that we should look for a reduction in parades, and other associated items at Christmas and at the Summer Festival”.
As a consequence £3,000 is to be cut from the budget of the Summer Festival and £5,000 cut from the budget of the Christmas Festival [ PDN Note: The 2016 Summer Festival was criticised for its lack of a central focus on the Esplanade – and the Christmas Festival for its lack-lustre production, sub-standard staging, congestion, poor scheduling and over-loud sound amplification].
Cllr Cuddy said that other “experimental activities” like Picnic Penarth could possibly be funded in other ways including sponsorship. The budget for the 2017 Picnic has been cut by £1,500 [ PDN Note: The second scheduled “Picnic Penarth” event of 2016 had been cancelled at short notice. The event no longer gets a grant from the Vale of Glamorgan Council ]
Cllr Cuddy said that the experimental “Late Night Shopping ” event had been held for a second year, but he said, somewhat-pointedly to councillors ” I didn’t see too many of you as I wandered around the shops.” . Cllr Cuddy said ” We feel it is an experiment which probably isn’t worth repeating at the moment – so that’s another saving” .
The total saving from all the above would be about £9,500 he said
Cllr Mark Wilson (Labour Cornerswell ) pointed out that the budget reports also indicated that the budget for “Tourism Projects” had been reduced from £7,500 to £5,000.
Cllr Gwyn Roberts (Labour St Augustines) said some of the events had been going for a long time and “minor parts” of the Christmas Festival and “Holiday Festival” were being changed . “The walking parade” he said “ is probably not good value for money we’re looking at doing it a different way to make it better and still save a considerable amount of money ” .
Cllr Anthony Ernest (Conservative Plymouth Ward) said “I’m just trying to get the hang of what’s going on this evening. We’re talking about figures that ‘haven’t been changed’ – and ‘we’ve done this and we’ve done that’ …. Are you saying that the figures that we have in front of us – as the Conservative Group – are innaccurate?”
Cllr Rhiannon Birch (Labour Cornerswell in the chair) said “We’re working off the same budget as you do – but we’re been thinking about ways of trimming it back even further.”
The Town Clerk Emma Boylen said the budget was “just not up to date at this moment”
Cllr Ernest retorted – “So we’re being asked to approve a budget tonight that is inaccurate? – that’s my interpretation “
Cllr Rhiannon Birch offered more explanation – and it then transpired that the Labour councillors had met earlier to consider the cuts. “We’ve all had exactly the same budget . We [ meaning the Labour councillors on the council] had a group meeting and have attempted to trim back some expenditure”.
At this point there was a lot of leafing through financial spreadsheets . Cllr Birch reiterated the proposed Summer Festival cut of £3,000, the Christmas Festival cut of £5,000 the cut of £1,500 from Picnic Penarth and £2,500 from Tourism – a total of £12,000 .
Cllr Birch said that the “ambitions of the council, and the age of austerity that we’re living in, mean that we will continue to look for savings throughout the year”.
Cllr Martin Turner (Conservative Plymouth Ward) said he was “a little disappointed that we are not trying to increase income. ” The income projections for the coming year were lower than those of the current year . He said “ With the extra staff that we’ve now got – with the increased numbers – [ Penarth Council employs an all time record of 20 staff] we should be trying to increase – through them – the level of income that we expect from activities.” Cllr Turner cited the example of the Paget Rooms – where no increased income whatsoever was forecast for the coming year. He thought the council ought to be looking at ways to generate “more and more income” . He thought the council was “not being as ambitions in our incomes are we are in our expenditure”
Cllr Birch reminded Cllr Turner that the council was intending to increase the fees it charges for use of its facilities.
Cllr Gwyn Roberts (Labour St Augustines) said he thought Cllr Turner was right but he thought it would be “imprudent to presume to have an increase in income” – nevertheless the council should attempt “every which way we can, to produce income”.
Cllr Ernest said “The council has always tended to increase its expenditure . If we don’t have that expectation of income coming in, then we should be looking to refine our budgets much closer.” Cllr Ernest said it was always possible to “vire” [ transfer] between various committee budgets and asked “Might it not be better to look at the overall budget of the committee – say £20,000 .” Micro-managing” the budgets , he said, did not always work out in a small council.
Cllr Mark Wilson (Labour Cornerswell) said the committee should be dedicated to maximizing its income. If the council knew it had unsold tickets for live events what was being done about it – at the last moment? Was the council publicising the event? Was “looking at a discount”? Were there things the council could be doing that it was not doing? With 20-odd staff in the council we should be saying “let’s do some really strong marketing to sell those tickets “.
The Town Clerk Emma Boylen said that in order to generate income from hirers [ of the Kymin or Paget Rooms ] the facilities needed to be offered to more people . Some hirers had been “there for years and years and years”. Offering the facilities to others might mean displacing established hirers . There was an issue as to whether this was“palatable “or not. Some flexibility was going to be required to move people to other venues.
Cllr Neil Thomas (Labour Cornerswell) although the council would like more income it would be “foolish” to include that in the budget. He thought “Facilities Working Group” should have income generation as part of their remit – but including enhanced income expectations in the budget would leave what he called “a possible gaping hole at the end of the year”.
Cllr Turner claimed “We’ve got a good handle on our expenditure” – but repeated the need to increase income and thought the council should set itself some “targets” rather than “just waiting to see what happens” .
Kerry-Leigh Hughes – Penarth Council’s Finance and PR officer – said that often the council could not forecast what it would make in income. The council could not forecast – for example what it would derive in cemetery fees . On venue hire Ms Hughes had even worse news for the council . She said that when overheads and salary costs were taken into consideration, all the council’s venues [ eg Kymin and Paget Rooms ] were operating at a loss.
Cllr Philip Rapier (Labour St Augustine’s) said that based on his experience in the entertainment industry, the correct approach was to “build a client-base, look after it and hang on to it once you’ve got it”.
Cllr Rapier put the boot into his council colleagues in no uncertain measure. . The council carried on – he asserted – “as if the Pier has nothing to do with us” and that ” the Turner Gallery – which is part of Penarth’s absolutely unique arts offering – is nothing to do with us”. He said “I’m afraid we’re not helping ourselves as a council” .
Cllr Rhiannon Birch in the chair challenged his view . She said ” I don’t think you can specifically say that they’re nothing to do with us”
Cllr Rapier came back at her to say “Well, we haven’t taken the other route either – have we?”
Cllr Ernest said that on the budget item for “Trees” he noticed that the budget had been reduced from £7,500 to £3,000 . Many members of the council, he said knew there was a lot of concern about the state of trees in the town.
Cllr Wilson – responding later – said the council was spending “15 times more on trees”. The initial projection was £200 but the figure was now £3,000 – which amounted – he asserted – to an increase of 1500%
Cllr Ernest asked why the budget was £7,500 if only £150 had been spent ? Cllr Wilson said “Let’s put it this way – we are where we are now”
Cllr Ernest also noted the Penarth Cemetery budgets had been scalped by £6,000. He said the cemetery was much-valued public facility. “I know it’s a very expensive estate to maintain” but he thought that be taking £1,000 away from the amount allocated to footpaths and roads “could be difficult for us”. In the past very large sums had been required to reinstate paths. He said the budget for cemetery development had been halved from £10,000 to £5,000 .
Cllr Ernest also noted that a £3,000 budget for improving energy efficiency in the Kymin and for the removal of a restrictive covenant on the property had been reduced to zero. Was this now something the council considered “not very important” ?
The Town Clerk explained that the covenant was still being dealt with and the money budgeted for insulation at the Kymin had been spent.
CONSERVATIVE SPLIT IN FINAL VOTE
There were 14 councillors present at last night’s meeting . A “show of hands” vote on motion to accept the budget with a reduction in expenditure of £12,000 revealed a split in the Conservative ranks on the council
Only 2 of the Conservative councillors Cllrs Ernest and Cllr Clive Williams (Conservative Plymouth Ward ) voted AGAINST the Labour motion . 10 councillors voted FOR it.
The other 2 Conservative councillors, Cllr Martin Turner and Cllr Wendy van den Brom (Conservative Plymouth Ward), decided not to follow the lead of their own party group and did not support their two Conservative colleagues.
Behind it all is a simmering row between Penarth Conservative Association president Cllr Clive Williams MBE (who is both a Vale and Penarth Town Councillor for Plymouth Ward) and Cllr Martin Turner who, with members of his family, was involved in the “selection process” which eliminated Cllr Williams from standing again for election as a Vale councillor for Plymouth Ward in next May’s local election.