Row breaks out over new Lancaster and Morecambe budget

Councillor Paul Woodruff.
Councillor Paul Woodruff.

Tempers flared over Lancaster City Council plans to raise Council Tax and keep on funding two theatres and a sports centre.

Councillors argued over this year’s 1.99% Council Tax rise and a decision to keep running Salt Ayre and the Platform, and continue to pay an annual grant to the Dukes Theatre.

Councillor Peter Williamson, leader of the Conservatives, said his party would not support the 2015/16 budget and was backed by Roger Dennison, leader of the Morecambe Bay Independents, and most of the other independent councillors.

But the Labour and Green parties, who form the coalition cabinet on Lancaster City Council, all voted in favour so the budget was passed 29 votes to 17.

During a heated debate at Morecambe Town Hall on Wednesday, Coun Williamson said: “We have two failing theatres costing us £356,000 a year, we have a failing sports centre losing £1.2m a year. Are we entertainment or sports promoters?”

His Tory colleague Roger Mace said: “The 1.99% increase is not value for money for tax payers.

“We are using £1m from balances to fund our budget. I do not understand the reasons for this.”

But independent councillor Coun Paul Woodruff said he disagreed with the budget because he felt not enough money was being spent.

He said: “We’re putting more and more money into the pot for future years, for rainy days. But what is a rainy day?

“Let’s have some money spent now! We’ve got so much money in reserve. If I pay into a Christmas club, I expect to get my money back at Christmas.”

In reply, the council’s leader Eileen Blamire, a Labour councillor, said: “Spend, spend, spend is your attitude. I’m afraid that’s not what we can do.

“The council has to find savings of £3.5m by 2018. We’ve already lost a third of our staff and 40% of our finances. We may run out of money by 2017/18.”

Her colleague Abbott Bryning blamed the Government for cutting grants to local authorities and said: “We’re not in as bad a position as other (UK) councils find themselves.”

Coun Jon Barry, of the Green party, defended the decision not to make cuts to Salt Ayre. The council is instead trying to find a partner to develop the sports centre.

He said: “We could just be a boring council that does nothing but we’re not trying to do that.”

Coun Williamson said after the meeting: “I’m not saying don’t fund The Dukes or close The Platform or Salt Ayre, all I’m saying is that if front line services are under threat, why are we doing what we’re doing? I’d cut them before I started cutting street cleaning, dustbin collections and environmental health.”

The Platform venue, operated by Lancaster City Council in the former Morecambe railway station, is forecast to run at a loss of £214,300 in 2015/16.

The council will give The Dukes a £150,700 grant in 2015/16.

Salt Ayre Sports Centre is estimated to run at a loss of £1.273m in 2015/16.

Lancaster City Council has used £1m from its balances in this year’s budget to avoid cutting services but may not be able to repeat this in future years and has a £1.4m funding gap to bridge.

Its annual Government grant has been cut by 16.1 per cent and it is also set to lose £1m from 2018/19 due to the end of a waste recycling cost sharing agreement with Lancashire County Council. The council also has to keep a minimum of £1m in its balances by law.

A council report said: “Unless the council addresses its ongoing budget funding gap fairly soon...it could run out of funds part way through 2017/18. Despite all the good progress being made it is still anticipated that the council will have to reduce its annual net spending on services by a further £2m over the next two years or so, with the expectation that more savings will be needed beyond 2017/18. On a much more positive note, the council does have time to plan for the future and achieve a financially sustainable budget.

“The outcome of the General Election in May 2015 and the resulting Government’s spending plans will undoubtedly have a major bearing on the city council’s prospects.”

The report also says the council has emergency accounts, including a £1.47m allocation towards a new solar farm at Middleton.

The council will spend £17m on running costs in 2015/16, an 8% year-on-year reduction on net spending.

This year’s budget also includes £99,000 to fund 10 Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) for the year, freezing off street parking charges for a year, £200,000 on bringing empty homes back into use, £8,000 on sprucing up areas near Lancaster Castle, £30,000 on refurbishments to Salt Ayre Sports Centre, £1.02m on sea and river defence works and studies, £330,000 on improving Morecambe’s main streets and £75,000 on Williamson Park improvements.