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£29m for highways and footpaths in Cambridgeshire County Council’s £660m budget for 2021-22

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The ruling Conservatives on Cambridgeshire County Council pledged to fund improvements to footpaths and roads as they passed their annual budget amid opposition from Labour and the Liberal Democrat councillors.

The council voted through a £660.3million budget for the 2021-22 financial year on Tuesday (February 9), an increase of around £47.3million – or 7.7 per cent – compared to last year’s budget.

Cllr Steve Count. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Steve Count. Picture: Keith Heppell

Its share of the council tax bill will rise by 2.99 per cent, meaning the average Band D household will pay £1,399.77 for county services, which include schools, social care, highways, libraries, waste disposal and recycling.

The Tories pledged:

  • £20million extra in footpath maintenance with half on surface treatments, such as footway repairs, and the other half on deeper treatments, such as resurfacing and reconstruction. This is in addition to the current £1.3million annual budget for footpath maintenance.
  • £2.73million extra in measures to prevent flooding and improve local biodiversity, including rapid gully clearing at all known risk sites, better verge maintenance on rural roads avoiding peak flowering times and an urban verge ‘cut and collect’ trial, plus initiatives to provide both active and practical support for local communities to address flooding
  • £6.97million to reconstruct the B1050 Shelfords Road at Willingham. The council said this road had been a longstanding concern for a number of years. A busy route crossing the River Ouse, it is the main commuter route from the Fens towards Cambridge and the A14. While “significant work” has been undertaken to keep it serviceable, the council said “historic construction destabilised by poor ground conditions” means full reconstruction is needed to prevent its eventual closure.

Cllr Steve Count, the council leader, championed the Conservatives’ record of spending on highways since taking control in 2017, but said “residents have been clear footpaths need more attention”.

Cllr Count also explained that his party has not chosen to increase council tax by the maximum allowed by government rules – 4.99 per cent – saying the “likely lasting damage done by the pandemic means we need protect our residents from the burden of extra taxation as much as is possible”.

The leader of the Labour group, Elisa Meschini, questioned the Conservatives over their extra funding commitments for footpaths and highways, saying extra funding for those purposes is expected from the government imminently.

Cllr Count responded: “We don’t know what is coming in. I’m expecting anywhere between £6million or £10million to come in, and that can be used to reduce capital borrowing.”

The £29million pledge for highways and footpaths is pledged whether or not the council receives government funding, he confirmed.

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha. Picture: Keith Heppell

The leader of the council’s largest opposition party, Liberal Democrat councillor Lucy Nethsingha, criticised the Conservatives for only releasing their final budget plans, including the increase in council tax and extra spending on footpaths and highways, a few days before the meeting due to decide them.

She said it reduced the time for the press and public to scrutinise the plans, and said the “disingenuous nature of this budget process means that the real discussion about priorities has hardly happened in public at all”. She said a change to the council’s budget-setting process introduced last year “makes proper scrutiny almost non-existent”.

Suggesting the council would have been better off had it raised council tax in recent years by the maximum sum allowed, she claimed: “Had Cambridgeshire’s Conservatives made the choices made by their Conservative colleagues in Norfolk, Suffolk, Hertfordshire and the majority of county councils around the country, we in at this council would have £15million more in revenue every year.”

She said that “would mean that we were not scrabbling around to find funding for routine cleaning of drains and gulleys – they would have been cleared, and hundreds of people would not have had their homes flooded this winter”.

The Liberal Democrats’ budget amendment would have increased council tax by 3.49 per cent this year, leading to more money being invested in highways than the Conservatives over the next two years, while also increasing sums spent to tackle climate change and offer more support for communities impacted by the pandemic.

But Cllr Meschini criticised the spending priorities of both the Tories and Liberal Democrats, arguing they were not focused enough on supporting communities and the most vulnerable.

She said the Labour Party’s budget amendment would have increased council tax by three per cent, allocating funding to make the council an accredited “real living wage” employer, while also introducing a Covid-19 community recovery fund.

The Liberal Democrat and Labour budget amendments were voted down along party lines. Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups voted against the Conservative amendments and budget, but this was not enough to prevent them passing.

Cllr Count said the council’s spending would rise by 6.9 per cent next year even without the extra funds for highways and footpaths.

“We have striven all year to ensure that the vulnerable and the Covid recovery was at the very front of our plans in bringing these main budget proposals,” he said, adding the extra funding for footpaths and highways represents “our political priorities after we have sorted out the most vulnerable”.

He said the past year had been unlike any other in the council’s history, and that the council had spent around £70million more than it budgeted, mostly financed by extra support from the government.

Raising council tax by 2.99 per cent was described as a “last resort”.

The county council estimates it will receive funding of:

  • More than £320million from council tax
  • £64 million from business rates
  • £122 million from fees and charges
  • £136 million in central government grants.

Following the increase in council tax, from April the new annual payment to the county council will be:

  • Band A: £933.18
  • Band B: £1,088.71
  • Band C: £1,244.24
  • Band D: £1,399.77
  • Band E: £1,710.83
  • Band F: £2,021.89
  • Band G: £2,332.95
  • Band H: £2,799.54

The full bill also includes payments to district/city and town/parish councils, along with police and fire precepts.

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