Conwy council tax rise passed amid row and ‘heavy mob’ of councillors

A former local authority leader blasted a “heavy mob” of councillors who rounded on him for trying to sabotage a 2.95 per cent council tax rise at the 11th hour.

Gareth Jones, now leader of the Allied Independent group on Conwy county council, made the comments at a fractious full meeting of members during a vote on this year’s tax bill – which he called “regressive”.

Whilst praising the work of outgoing finance director Andrew Kirkham he said the rise was too much for residents to bear, with many suffering financial loss due to the Covid pandemic.

He tabled an amendment to scrap the increase and go back to the drawing board but was told by legal officer Rhun ap Gareth it was “not in order”, without a balanced back-up budget proposal to account for the missing £2.2m hole it would leave in the finances.

He eventually withdrew his proposal and the revenue budget and 2.95 per cent council tax hike, equivalent to an extra £39.64 a year for the county council portion of a Band D bill, was passed – but not before tempers became frayed.

Cllr Julie Fallon, cabinet member for education, said the extra cash would help the “most vulnerable pupils” in Conwy.

She said: “If people out there understood they would be happy to pay 76 pence extra a week to help the most vulnerable people.”

Cllr Goronwy Edwards challenged Cllr Jones to come forward with a better budget and Cllr Brian Cossey was more forthright in his condemnation of the move.

He said: “Year on year before we have this meeting reports come to us on the financial situation.

“Surprisingly people don’t mention anything about freezing council tax. It’s time we got real.

“We have to set a balanced budget and yes we know we live in strange times – we don’t live in cupboards.”

He said people coming to the meeting should “just get real and realise the consequences of their stupid arguments”.

Cllr Ronnie Hughes asked what councillor Jones’ alternative budget was and why he hadn’t brought it up in finance scrutiny or “any of the other committees”.

“It’s a silly time to play games,” he said.

Cllr Jones said: “Now I’ve had the heavy mob on me I appreciate we need to come up with alternatives but the fact is there’s been very little consultation with ordinary members.”

The former council leader had also been accused of wanting to deprive schools of money by voting down the rise.

He said: “To say I want to deprive schools of £1m – who is being deprived of the money you’re spending on Mochdre commerce park and that debacle?

“I’m sure that amounted to hundreds of thousands (of pounds).

“What about Porth Eirias? Why can’t we change how we organise and run Venue Cymru – that’s another £1m?

“It could become a community interest company.”

He added: “There are many, many things I could come back with – the list is endless.

“So don’t tell me I’m here to deprive schools or social services, in fact the very opposite.

“To remind you the commerce park in Mochdre has not come before full council – that tells you something.”

Earlier in the discussion he’d criticised both UK and Welsh Governments for putting the burden of taxation on local authorities by not funding services while making increasing demands on them.

He said: “I would urge councillors to show compassion and empathy (for tax payers) by rejecting these proposed increases.

“In pre-Covid times a 2.95 per cent tax increase would seem quite reasonable but not in the pandemic.

“Families have come under considerable financial strain and it seems insensitive to ask families to dig deeper for money they can’t afford.

“It’s disproportionate how it affects families on low incomes in these times.”

He said it may be “just £40” but it was on top of a previous rise and previous rises before that.

Council Leader Sam Rowlands said of 55,000 residences liable for council tax around 21,000 received a 25 per cent discount for being singles occupiers and around 10,500 claimed some sort of council tax reduction for things like disabilities or being on low incomes.

He said officers had produced a “balanced budget” where schools had not had to find cost savings and social care had only been forced to find 15 savings, despite more than £7m of cost pressures caused by pay rises and other factors.

Councillors eventually voted by 38 to nine votes to approve the revenue budget and tax rise, with six members abstaining.

North Wales Pioneer | Llandudno