SENIOR councillors have defended “difficult decisions” made on proposed service cuts in Basingstoke and Deane.

But the plans were criticised by the opposition as “morally reprehensible” - including ending free disabled parking, and “unfair” charges for pest control.

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday evening (November 10), councillors from other parties asked questions about the draft budget for 2021/22.

As previously reported by the Gazette, residents will have to pay £5 more a year in council tax (a 3 per cent increase) to the borough council if plans are approved.

Alongside this, a raft of cuts to council services have been unveiled as part of plans to balance the authority's budget.

It is in response to a report from a meeting in September that revealed that the authority expected the coronavirus pandemic to cost almost £6 million in 2021-22.

This includes over £1 million in unplanned costs, and almost £5 million in reduced income.

As it stands, the draft leaves the borough council with a budget gap of £1.03 million.

Free parking for disabled people will be scrapped under the plans, whilst the cost of residents' parking permits will be increased by 60 per cent.

The town's B-Love festival, cancelled this year because of the pandemic, could also be outsourced.

Cllr Hannah Golding, cabinet member for finance and service improvement, introduced the draft.

“The covid-19 pandemic continues to have a significant impact on the council’s finances as we aim to ensure residents are well provided for, while dealing with a reduction in our income,” she said.

She said the “particularly challenging time” had led to “more significant changes” than in recent years.

“Every effort has been made to protect and preserve the services that residents tell us they value,” she added.

“I will make sure that all responses are carefully considered in determining the final proposals.”

The cabinet justifies the proposed council tax hike by claiming that Basingstoke’s rate still remains comparatively low.

Cllr Golding said: “We will maintain our position as a low tax council. Our proposed annual rise of £5 is still likely to be lowest in Hampshire.”

However, opposition councillors raised a number of concerns with the other proposed savings, namely moves to remove free parking for blue badge holders and in rural car parks, and new charges for waste disposal and pest control services.

Cllr Angela Freeman (Labour, Winklebury) said: “I would like to express my opposition to the introduction of parking charges for blue badge holders in council car parks.

“I understand it’s perfectly legal, but I find it morally reprehensible.”

Cllr Freeman said that, while blue badge spaces are often situated in accessible areas close to shops and amenities, pay and display machines are often not.

She said: “Considering a lot of these residents will be veterans or parents of diabled children, do we really want to be seen as the council that introduced charges for disabled people? I don’t see it will generate any income, it’s more likely to push disabled residents out of the town centre. It’s not the charge as such, but the inconvenience and extra physical exertion and pain that will make these people suffer. It’s not fair.”

Responding to the concern, council leader Ken Rhatigan said: “I have a number of disabled friends who tell me that they want to be treated the same as everybody else.

“Although there is a point where they cannot access the machines quite so easily, I think our introduction of an app will help them in this process.”

Parking was also raised by Cllr Ian Tilbury (leader of the Basingstoke and Deane Independent Group, representing Overton, Laverstoke and Steventon).

He said: “Other councils seem to be doing their best to boost trade in the rural areas, we seem to be doing our best to damage it. We’re doing quite well here at the moment, we are lucky to have quite a good range of shops and this is not going to help them, charging for car parking.

“These don’t seem to be costed, these proposals. It just seems to be a knee-jerk reaction.”

Cllr Hayley Eachus, member for environment and enforcement, responded to this by stating: “It is in the paper that we can’t guarantee the income we would get, but looking at usage it is around £30,000.”

Cllr Eachus went onto claim that the charges proposed in Whitchurch, Overton, Kingslcere and Bramely would help with ongoing maintenance and “decrease the incentive of the abuse of these spaces.”

Other areas under Cllr Eachus’ remit were raised by Cllr Carolyn Wooldridge (Labour, Norden), who had concerns about removal of subsidised pest control and bin services.

She argued that planned charges of £60 for pest control and £41 for a waste bin was something many “simply cannot afford.”

“I can just see an environmental health problem looming if this is implemented. This is so unfair and no way to treat our residents,” she added.

Cllr Eachus responded by saying that the pest control was a “discretionary service” offered by the council, and that the one-off payment of £60, even if the problem is ongoing, was better for residents than dealing with a private firm themselves.

On the subject of bins, she added: “Our charges are extremely reasonable, and with the increase are still very reasonable. Green, recycling bins are still free and that is unlike many other authorities.”

As it stands, the draft leaves the borough council with a budget gap of £1.03 million - which it says will be lessened when an update on central government funding is received.

In addition to service cuts and charges (totalling around £55,000 in savings), it is cutting back on 26 full-time staff (17 vacancies to remain unfilled, and 9 redundancies, although details of positions affected are not yet available).

Speaking after the meeting, Basingstoke Labour leader Cllr Any McCormick said: ““We did not get any answers to contingencies in case the budget gap is not closed following the government spending review, other than a vague allusion to looking at capital contributions.”

Cllr Golding said: “They were difficult decisions to make. There were things that would be easier to keep out but ultimately we have a responsibility to make any savings as fair as possible.”

While Cllr Rhatigan added: “We are not able to protect our residents forever. That is one of the effects of the pandemic - our income has fallen and our expenditure has risen. On that basis the strategy and the budget before you is supportable, I believe. We are a listening administration and we will listen to any and all well-rounded arguments to keep or cut lines within this budget.”

The proposals will now be subject to a six week public consultation (which began on Wednesday, November 11), and a final decision on 2021/22 budget will be taken at full council on February 25.

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