At last nights meeting of Bridgwater Town Council, Chairman of the Finance Committee Cllr John Turner (Hamp) presented the proposed budget for 2016-17 and it was passed unanimously.
The proposal saw a modest increase in precept in the face of a major cutback from central government alongside spending on the town centre, the towns 3 community centres in Hamp, Sydenham and Victoria, a special 70th anniversary grant for the Bridgwater Arts Centre and use of reserves to match-fund key projects attracting EDF ‘mitigation’ money including enhancement works to Blake Gardens, the Town Centre, Taunton Road and South Bridgwater .
The budget also saw a speeding up or works to the Town hall and plans for a major sports facility in Eastover.
Council leader Cllr Brian Smedley (Westover) explained the figures in a statement.
“Due to sound financial planning since the inception of the Town Council our funds are in good shape with solid reserves therefore we are in a strong position not only to meet the harsh attacks of the National Government on local government finances which will see a reduction in our Grant but to go for growth in the face of austerity. Therefore the budget we will be proposing this year will combine a sensible use of reserves to attract increased funding and a modest increase in precept to meet some of the aims identified through our newly established network of Community Forums.”
National Government Support Grant reduction
“The Government are phasing out the grant which bridged the loss of income when the Government paid the full Council Tax to low income households. The Government Council Tax support grant passed on by SDC for 2015-16 was £91,034 but for 2016-17 and this will be reduced to £67,734. This means a drop of 1/3rd which amounts to a potential loss of £23,300, however, Bridgwater’s TAX BASE has increased which means an instant recovery of £16,447 . BTC stated aim is to at least maintain a Continuation Budget. If we wish to maintain that policy this means the actual shortfall is a manageable £6,853.”
“At the Finance committee we looked at several options which ranged from using a minimal sum from reserves to maintain a continuation budget to several options for raising the precept to go for growth. The BTC precept is currently 49.80 based on the current band D. Our proposal is for a modest increase to 51.50 which would bring in £32,225 – a rise of £1.70 (3.4%) on a band D property, and therefore considerably lower for the majority of properties in Bridgwater which are bands A&B. This would cover the shortfall and give us £25,373 growth in addition.”
Income streams and earmarked funds
“On top of this we have taken steps over the years to ensure that we manage the towns finances responsibly and are in a position to keep up our valuable core funding to the community and to take these forward when possible. BTC has established various income streams from rentals, lettings, town hall hire etc . Whilst the Town Hall stream is the most vulnerable in the face of other competition in the cultural arena it is adequately compensated by additional rental options with BOS café requiring additional first floor storage space and by a new short term licence agreement with Wessex water on Bristol rd.
BTC has various further ringfenced funds in place which are earmarked for specific projects and which can be used should we need them.
Civic Enhancement Fund;- This fund was established in the early days of the establishment of the Town Council some 10 years ago and has been drawn on occasionally when needed but largely maintained as an active reserve fund. It is now time to utilise part of this fund to bring in other funds at this key moment in Bridgwater’s history. BTC has committed to maximise the advantage offered by EDF’s CIM fund and so we should not hold back in drawing on this fund to match or seed key projects of value to the town within this. From this fund and earmarked funds we intend to use £66,000 as our contribution to 3 key projects, notably £16,500 towards the Blake Gardens enhancement project- an area which needs serious input to recover this community green space for the people of the town, £20,000 to match fund important Town Centre renewal projects including events, business support , town bridge lighting, celebration mile developments and other long awaited enhancements plus an additional £35,000 to match fund much needed highway and environmental enhancements to the South of Bridgwater specifically targeting the Taunton road and neighbourhood which is a critical access route to our town centre. These projects will range from traffic calming, footways and cycleways, road crossing points, bus shelters, landscaping , signage and enhancement of the area around the parade of shops. Our £66,000 contribution can bring in the equivalent of some £700,000.
A further £500,000 of EDF 106 money is being proposed for a major sports facility and following the stalemate in discussions about a hub project at the out of town Morganians site we are pressing forward with the Bristol road playing fields site to make good use of this key open space for the community
Town Hall upgrade
Town Hall ;- The Town Hall is the headquarters of Bridgwater Town Council and an underused asset for the town centre and we need to bring it up to scratch. We are doing this through a new cross-cultural forum of providers including the Art centre, the Engine room, the new McMillan theatre and the Town hall. BTC has a separate Town Hall fund to allocate for a programme of maintenance and development. We need to ensure the Town Hall holds it’s place in the array of cultural outlets for the town and therefore will be pressing ahead, following complete redecoration of the main hall, with continuing upgrades and refurbs including completion of the floor in the Charter Hall, replacement of the stage curtains and crucially a new project to bring forward the development of the former Council Chamber as a new Bridgwater Room on the first floor as a newly upgraded reception room in the next financial year which can attract further income streams and enhance the community facilities provided at our core.
Going for Growth
Growth ;- BTC has not raised the precept in the past 5 years of it’s modern existence but now needs to face the challenge of National Government attacks on Local Government. At the same time we have opened our doors to the wider community this year through our Forums which have identified areas which we need to focus on and which will need resources allocated to them.
Firstly we need to ensure that our key community providers are secure for the foreseeable future. This means raising core funding to the 3 Community Centres-Hamp, Sydenham and Victoria by £3,000 apiece.
Britain’s first Art Centre reaches 70
Secondly we intend to include provision for a special one off increase of £10,000 to the historic Bridgwater Arts Centre, the first art centre in the country, on it’s 70th anniversary to take a lead role in co-ordinating the cultural provision outlined as needed through our Forums, amongst the other key providers ,with an additional outreach role to our communities and to develop their work with their popular community festivals such as the ‘Big Bash’ as identified as an innovative way forward by our Youth Forum. This Grant will be reviewed next year along with other growth bids and expenditure for 2017/18.
Further outlined through our community Forums, our Town Centre needs special attention and therefore we intend to give the Town Team the funding stream suggested in order to make sure we have a town centre fit for purpose and in line with recommendations from our adopted Town Centre Action Plan we intend to allocate £6,000 for this purpose.”
Budget plans approved
The recommendation passed at Full Council was:- That to achieve the outlined targets in the above report, the Finance Committee recommends to Full Council a 3.4% increase in our precept which is a real increase of £1.70 per household at Band D for 2016-17 and approves the use of earmarked funds as indicated