Bideford Town Council criticised for raising council tax despite having £600k in the bank
BIDEFORD Town Council has been criticised for raising council tax while sitting on savings of more than £600,000.
Town councillor Anne Brenton said it was a mistake to have so much money in the bank.
In the last year the council raised its share of the council tax bill by six per cent.
It also unsuccessfully bid for £100,000 to help with regeneration as part of a national Mary Portas pilot project.
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Mrs Brenton said she was concerned at the size of the council's reserves.
She said it was "a big mistake to have such a large amount of money in one pot" without having earmarked it for large regeneration projects to benefit the area.
The council's savings have grown to reach £629,680.22 on November 26.
Mrs Brenton pointed out that when the council put up its council tax precept by six per cent last year (about £3.70 for a Band D property), other town and parish councils did not increase theirs at all.
She said: "Bideford Town Council has hardly any assets so we don't need to be sitting on this amount.
"I think the best policy is that the precept goes up very steadily, by something like half a per cent, to ensure there is never a big increase.
"At the end of the day it is taxpayers' money and they have a right to know their money is being spent wisely when everyone is struggling financially.
"I was led to believe the precept was being put up to enable us to give more to charitable organisations. But I don't think any more has been paid this year than previously.
"It would be nice to see the money being spent on projects such as Brunswick Wharf.
"I know Torridge District Council is in charge of it but if we could put money towards the project it might give us more say in what happens there.
"We should be setting aside some money to help improve the highways situation if the Atlantic Array comes along. The disruption it will cause Bideford will be huge."
The council has decided to spend some of the money – including erecting two plaques and moving a war memorial.
Bideford Town Council clerk Heather Blackburn confirmed during the financial year of 2012/13 £180,000 had been ring-fenced for regeneration projects. The same amount is allocated again for 2013/14.
Mrs Blackburn listed the current planned projects:
a plaque for the Bideford witches
improvements to the port memorial area
purchasing York stone for enhancements to Cooper Street
to partly fund a plaque marking Sir Richard Grenville's birth place
plans to move a war memorial from East-the-Water to Victoria Park and enhance the park's open space.
But the Mayor of Bideford, councillor Simon Inch, defended the council's finances.
He said: "I am sure there are regeneration projects that will be coming forward. I am most concerned with seeing Cooper Street being resurfaced.
"Perhaps after that we can move onto Mill Street but that will be a much bigger project.
"I think we were right to raise the precept because six per cent really isn't that much. I think we will raise it a little again this year, maybe by about three per cent, to make sure the money is coming in.
"A lot of money is has been put forward for regeneration but we just need to start deciding what we are spending it on."
Today the Audit Commission, the public purse watchdog, was releasing a report urging local councils not to sit on growing reserves.
The report shows that between 2007 and 2012 77 per cent of councils increased their reserves relative to their spending – with 26 per cent more than doubling them.
Council reserves grew by £4.5 billion over this period.
The commission found many councils had been setting money aside as a response to funding reductions and financial uncertainty.
Audit Commission Chairman Jeremy Newman said: "Reserves are a vital element of good financial management for any council, especially at a time of financial uncertainty.
"They help councils plan for known and predictable spending commitments, but are also a defence against the unknown and unpredictable.
"However, councils must strike a balance between the needs of current and future taxpayers.
"Given the sums involved, and the risks, it is essential that councils' decisions are made openly and reported with clarity, so local taxpayers and service users can hold their councils to account."