NO “MAJOR shocks” are anticipated during this financial year, the leader of the Royal Borough said – as the 2021/22 budget goes to full council next week.

In the ruling Conservative’s budget recommendations, council tax could increase to 4.99 per cent – which means a band D household will see a £53.76 spike.

Other proposals include swapping weekly black bin collections to fortnightly, reducing community wardens, slashing opening hours for multiple libraries, and removing the arts grant from quarter three in 2021/22.

In the next five years, the council needs to make around £20 million in savings mainly due to past financial mismanagement, growth in social care, historic low council tax and reserves, and the pandemic.

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However, despite the cuts, transformation work, and financial pressure, the leader of the council, councillor Andrew Johnson (Con: Hurley & Walthams), remained optimistic this year’s budget will be “stable” and will put the council in a “far better place” than most local authorities.

He revealed the council will end the current financial year with a £3 million underspend – which was originally meant to go back into reserves so it’s above the minimum level.

Due to the pandemic, that underspend will now be used as a one-off ‘Covid damping fund’ for the 2021/22 budget year to offset any further loses, such as parking income, where the government won’t cover the costs.

Cllr Andrew Johnson (Con: Hurley & Walthams), leader of the council

Cllr Andrew Johnson (Con: Hurley & Walthams), leader of the council

Speaking to the Observer, Cllr Johnson said: “We’re not anticipating any major shocks, famous last words, throughout the course of this year.

“We feel we have built-in enough flexibility to accommodate that and we have taken a prudent enough approach to absorb any additional loses.

“The saving figures may seem quite high and have a set of worst-case assumptions – but that’s been deliberately put in there to factor in a slightly more negative position we might find ourselves in.”

Questions were raised on the council’s financial situation when at February’s cabinet meeting, lead members unanimously voted in favour to remove the controversial introduction of charges to 12 free rural car parks – which would’ve saved the Royal Borough £100,000.

Opposition members pondered why other proposed cuts and savings were not scrapped, such as possible closure of four libraries, using the £3 million underspend to mitigate those costs.

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Cllr Johnson said: “We much prefer to use that £3 million as a genuine contingency. Without that £3 million surplus we would’ve had to find another £3 million in savings or other forms of income to have that slight cushion.”

He added it is “not set in stone” for those libraries to close as there is a 12-week consultation happening.

Cllr Johnson hinted they may not close if income streams, such as parking revenue, commercial properties, etc. bounce back “quicker and stronger” than anticipated.

When asked if he was confident a section 114 – effectively declaring bankruptcy – won’t be issued this year, the council leader said it is ‘unlikely’ and the Royal Borough is in “no immediate prospect” of issuing one.

Councillors will debate and vote on the 2021/22 budget next Tuesday (February 23).