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'We are not in crisis', West Norfolk councillor insists during budget debate

West Norfolk Council is not in crisis, despite warnings of a potential £4 million budget gap in the coming years, a meeting heard yesterday.

Members of the authority’s ruling cabinet backed the authority’s financial plan and capital programme during a virtual session on Tuesday afternoon.

The proposals, which now go to a full council meeting later this month, include a £4.50 increase in the borough’s annual share of council tax for an average band D property.

King's Court, Borough Council of West Norfolk.. (43755272)
King's Court, Borough Council of West Norfolk.. (43755272)

But officials have warned that, on current forecasts, the authority’s reserves will drop to their minimum permitted level in 2024-25 and an estimated £4 million budget gap by then will need to be addressed.

The meeting also heard that the uncertainty was increased by the lack of clarity on the proposed future funding of local government and how much of the revenue generated from business rates councils will be able to keep.

Council leader Brian Long said: “We are at the point where we need a basis going forward of solid ground on which we can base our budget projections.”

But the warnings prompted concerns from some opposition members about whether the council was facing the kind of crisis reported by other authorities and pleas for early action to prevent it.

Independent Chris Morley urged the Conservative administration to boost the “defences” of the authority during the remaining two years of its current term.

He said: “We are in a vulnerable position and we need to strengthen ourselves.”

Mr Long said that, while the position was different to any he had experienced previously as a councillor, it was likely to look worse now than at the end of the period.

Environmental services and public protection portfolio holder Stuart Dark added: “Talk of councils in crisis elsewhere, it’s not here.”

He also dismissed a call for parking charges, which are proposed to be frozen for the 2021-22 financial year, to be increased after all.

The idea was put forward by independent councillor Tom Ryves, who described it as the authority’s one “solid” source of income.

He said: “I don’t understand why we haven’t looked to increase charges this year.”

But Mr Dark responded: “As a council that has the back of its businesses that are struggling, why on Earth would we be thinking of putting parking charges up? It’s the wrong thing to do.”

Cabinet members also defended plans to spend £250,000 on work to examine the provision of “move-on” space for the King’s Lynn Innovation Centre (KLIC).

Although papers published ahead of the meeting said the work would be paid for through cash from the Norfolk Strategic Fund, there were calls for the investment to be focused elsewhere.

Mr Morley accused the administration of “ignoring” the case for redeveloping the St George’s Guildhall complex, following the rejection of the council’s bid for money from the government’s Future High Streets Fund programme.

And Jo Rust added: “I believe residents would prefer to see investment in a beautiful, historic tourist attraction rather than what many consider a white elephant like the KLIC building.”

But business development portfolio holder Graham Middleton said he was “frustrated” at what he saw as a willingness to talk down a facility unique in the area.

He said the money would enable options to be explored and the companies who work there were passionate about the area.

He continued: “There is one business in the KLIC building that is operating three separate offices. There is nowhere else for them in King’s Lynn. They want to be in King’s Lynn.

“Things that aren’t on the plan now may be in six months or a year’s time.”

The budget and capital programme proposals will now go to a full council meeting on February 25 for a final decision.

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