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Wirral council tax frozen after 'game-changer' Government ruling
Wirral's council tax is to be frozen this year.
The local authority's ruling cabinet met this evening and heard a last-minute ruling by the Government meant it should now be possible to hold the tax at its present levels, and that the freeze also could be extended to cover 2015-16.
A 2% hike had been anticipated until the town hall was told a £1.3m Government top-up grant would be built into into its base budget and would be available for the next two years.
"This was a game-changer," said Labour council leader Cllr Phil Davies.
"We refused the grant last year as it would only have meant having to cut services further next year to fill the gap."
Councillor Davies sounded a note of caution, however, saying he is now waiting to learn the level of precepts to be added in for police and fire services.
The top-up still left a shortfall of £700,000 if the tax was to be frozen, but lower than expected levies from the waste disposal authority and Merseytravel provided sufficient savings to fill the gap.
An unexpected raft of spending was also announced.
A major house-building programme is to be launched to "kick-start" more than 100 new affordable homes in areas which lost out when the Government housing renewal programme was cut.
Some £2m of capital wil be used to upgrade three leisure centre - Europa Pools, Guinea Gap and West Kirby Concourse.
Around £400,000 will be made available to tackle fly-tipping and boost efforts to prosecute culprits. Monthly cleaning of alley ways will be reinstated.
The council will also provide "bridging funding" to ensure the under-threat Williamson Art Gallery and Museuem continues to operate while the action group set up to consider new ways of running it is given more time to complete its business plan.
And schools will be told they will not lose their lollipop crossing patrols if they decide not to agree to a council scheme asking them to pay for the service themselves.
Pensioners over the age of 70 whose homes are in A-to-D council tax bands will continue to receive a 5% discount.
Councillor Davies said: "By the end of 2016, the Government will have slashed our funding by 50 per cent, and we still need to find £44m savings over the next two years, so we are not out of the woods yet.
"But my focus has always been to ensure the council's finances are back on a sound footing, at the same time as doing all we can to protect the vulnerable and maintain our drive to improve our economy and reduce inequalities.
"I am proud that our budget is a step towards those ambitions."
The acceptance of the tax freeze top-up grant was only made last Wednesday when Government notified the local authority of its budget rules for this year.
The council leader told the Globe: "The guidance arrived desperately late, normally we would know by December.
"What happens after 2016 is a bit vague, but at a time when the borough's householders are facing increasing financial pressure from so many quarters, I am glad we are not going to impose an additional burden on them by increasing council tax."
Liberal Democrat councillor Stuart Kelly said: "Because only 26 out of 92 schools have agreed to use their education funding to pay for crossing patrols, Labour have instructed officers to continue discussions with schools.
"But they have also given a guarantee that no funding will be removed where agreement cannot be reached.
“This clumsy compromise is ridiculous - why would any schools choose to pay in these circumstances?”
“Labour's policy is in tatters.
"We have argued all along school budgets should be used for educating our children, not paying for road safety.
"That is the council’s responsibility. And it’s clear that most governing bodies agree with us.”
“It is time to recognise reality. I call on Cllr Davies to withdraw this ill-considered plan once and for all instead of limping on with this strange proposal."
The cabinet voted unanimously in favour of the budget, which will now go to a meeting of the full council for approval on February 25.