Swansea Council will spend more on schools, social services and the environment in the coming financial year after setting a budget which will raise council tax by 2.99%.
Councillors had to decide whether to support an amendment by the Liberal Democrat-Independent opposition to increase council tax by 1.99% in recognition of the financial hardship experienced by many households over the past year, or opt for Labour’s 2.99% proposal.
After a lengthy debate, 43 councillors voted in favour of the Labour proposal, with 19 councillors abstaining. A larger majority then opposed the 1.99% amendment.
The upshot is that Band D householders will pay £1,448.35p in council tax from April 1, excluding the South Wales Police precept and any community council precepts.
The council tax rise was nevertheless lower than had been expected, and that’s in large part because the council will receive more central Government funding – which forms the lion’s share of council income – than the current year.
Council leader Rob Stewart said the 2.99% increase would be lower than most other Welsh authorities, with cabinet colleague, Cllr David Hopkins, describing the budget proposals as “a very fair deal for the people of Swansea”.
Opposition leader, Cllr Chris Holley, partially welcomed the lower than expected 2.99% figure but said it didn’t go far enough.
He and Lib-Dem colleagues set out the case for a 1.99% rise as a one-off, given the exceptional circumstances of the last 12 months. Cllr Holley recommended using money held in a pot of reserves to fund capital financing costs to make up the difference.
Chief finance officer Ben Smith said he and the chief executive became more nervous the lower the proposed increases were.
“One is more sustainable than the other over the medium term,” said Mr Smith.
Cllr Paxton Hood-Williams, on behalf of the Conservatives, said the budget looked good for Swansea for the coming year but claimed that council tax had risen by 60% since Labour had returned to power in 2012.
Council tax for a Band D householder was £990.91 in Swansea in 2011-12 compared to £1,448.35p for 2021-22.
The debate veered towards the large-scale capital investments being carried out by the Labour administration, which Labour councillors described variously as ambitious, imaginative and much-needed given the economic disruption.
Cllr Holley said the council was “borrowing money left, right and centre” and that money held back in recent years to fund repayment costs could be used for day-to-day spending.
Labour councillor Clive Lloyd said not investing in the city would be “a disservice to future generations”.
He added: “If ever there has been a time to grasp the nettle and provide that capital investment, the time is now.”
All told, Swansea Council will spend £436 million on its core services in 2021-22, nearly £22 million more than currently. But, because of cost pressures like inflation, it will also have to make savings of £8 million.
Schools will receive £6.85 million more in 2021-22, social services an extra £7.7 million, and the environment an additional £6.1 million. A proposed increase in school meal costs has been ditched.
Council leader Rob Stewart also announced a £5 million social care fund to mitigate further Covid pressures in 2021-22, and added that the authority’s network of local area coordinators – officers who help people who may soon need social services support – would be expanded.
More environment staff will be deployed to keep streets clean and £660,000 will be invested in a flood response and preparation team, with a focus on clearing drains and road gulleys.
Cllr Stewart also pledged more cycle routes and said Swansea “can now rival many European cities” in terms of its cycle network.
The Labour leader said £100,000 would be spent on improving public toilets, and that a stalled roll-out of free public wi-fi would resume.
He also said £150,000 would be allocated to the St Thomas and Bonymaen wards in recognition of living – particularly in the case of Port Tennant – close to Tir John landfill site.
Cllr Stewart also said more money would be spent on sports facilities and parks, while tree-planting would also be a focus.
He also announced a £20 million recovery package for coming years in recognition of the coronavirus pandemic. This will allocate spending across four broad areas – the local economy, people and jobs, general well-being, and community projects – although some specific examples shown on a slide seemed to duplicate previously-mentioned budget proposals.
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Cllr Stewart said the recovery package would pay for parking promotions in Mumbles and investment in district shopping centres across the county.
Conservative group leader, Cllr Lyndon Jones, said he was pleased that Cllr Stewart “had found out where Mumbles is”.
The Labour leader said he regularly visited Mumbles and was working closely with Mumbles Community Council over the transfer of Underhill Park to a charity and also land for a seafront skate park.
All party leaders agreed that council staff deserved special praise for their efforts during a turbulent year.
Their work in 2020-21, said Cllr Stewart, had been “exceptional”.
The key capital spending plans for the coming year
After a spending splurge on things like the indoor arena this year, Swansea Council’s capital budget will almost half to £104 million in 2021-22.
But it is still a significant sum – more than double any of the following four years under current assumptions.
Just over £30 million will be spent on the Copr Bay scheme – which largely comprises the arena – in 2021-22. The venue is due to open by the end of this calendar year.
Just under £19 million will be invested into new or upgraded schools, although 65% of this will come via the Welsh Government as part of the 21st Century Schools Programme.
The Palace Theatre restoration will absorb £5.5 million costs in 2021-22, while £2.9 million will be allocated to the ongoing overhaul of Hafod-Morfa Copperworks buildings and £2.3 million will be spent revamping Wind Street.
In addition, £2.6 million will be invested in a new car park in Swansea Vale.
Speaking about the wider capital programme at the budget meeting on March 4, council leader Rob Stewart said the Albert Hall, on the corner of Craddock Street and De-La-Beche Street, would be renovated to provide a performance area, plus commercial space and flats.
The council has borrowed £90 million to pay for capital projects and is expected to need a further £90 million to fund its six-year £499 million programme.
Chief finance officer Ben Smith said: “I’m poised to consider borrowing in the new year.”
Interest rates are currently low, but Mr Smith said they were “ticking up a little bit”.
Asked by Cllr Jeff Jones how this would affect repayment costs owed by the council, Mr Smith said an extra 1% interest rate rise equated to a £900,000 hike.
A huge public sector hub is to be created in due course on the city centre side of Oystermouth Road, which will be home to council staff among others.
Another hub will be created at an as-yet unknown location to accommodate the relocated central library and some other council services. And a large office aimed at high-tech firms will rise from the former Oceana nightclub site on The Kingsway.
Capital spending was approved at the meeting after the revenue budget and council tax were set.