Epping Forest will have ‘far and away’ the lowest Council Tax rate in Essex according to Cabinet Finance Portfolio Holder Cllr John Philip.
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Lowest Council Tax in Essex
Speaking after Cabinet, Councillor John Philip said:
Epping Forest District has consistently set one of the lowest Council Tax precepts in Essex and at this stage, with only a week or two before councils set their final budgets, it looks as though we will still be the lowest.
Councillor Philip commended the budget to Cabinet after one of the most challenging sets of economic conditions in years. Meeting on 7 February, Cabinet agreed to recommend a balanced budget to Full Council on 24 February. Following a series of measures to close the initial funding gap for 2022/23 financial year, councillors welcomed the government funding announcement to support the new budget.
£150 Council Tax rebate
Against the background of reduced income due to the pandemic, the upcoming budget has been one of the most challenging. Final touches have been made following receipt of the government’s financial settlement and recent announcement of £150 Council Tax rebate for those eligible households within the A to D bands, benefitting around 32,000 households within the district.
Speaking after the meeting, Council Leader Cllr Chris Whitbread said:
As a Council, we understand how difficult the cost of living increases will be for residents in coming months. The government’s £150 rebate will be especially welcome as energy price rises, higher national insurance and inflation hit people’s pockets. There may also be assistance for some residents on low incomes in higher Council Tax band properties. Check the council website to see what benefits might be available.
Significant savings and strong returns
As previously reported, all councillors have been asked to contribute to discussions as the draft budget was brought before earlier Cabinet and Stronger Council Select Committee meetings.
Significant savings have been achieved including reductions in office costs as the Council completed the refit of the Civic Offices and closed other offices in Hemnall Street and the Epping Depot.
Despite the Covid pandemic, the Council’s property portfolio including Epping Forest Shopping Park, industrial estates and retail units has continued to provide strong returns. Better than expected recovery in leisure centre attendance has reduced predicted Covid-related losses. North Weald Airfield continues to generate income from diverse activities including distribution, aviation and the Saturday Market.
Income from the Council’s wholly-owned management, investment and development company group Qualis has also started to make significant contributions.
Council Tax collection rates are better than expected. Vacancy rates are low as Epping Forest High Streets continue to out-compete other town centres, suggesting economic confidence and support to local business during the pandemic has been successful.
Further income is due to come on stream following the letting of the top floor of the Civic Offices to a private tenant.
Tough choices have still had to be made. Fewer people are using town centre car parks. Pay and display income is still below pre-pandemic levels and the draft budget includes an increase in parking tariffs for the first time in 5 years.
Councillor Chris Whitbread said:
We’ve had to make some tough choices to protect front-line services. I am sorry for increases including the nominal increase of £5 per year in the District Council element of Council Tax for a Band D property but I am glad to say it will be more than compensated for in the government-funded rebate of £150.
The average council house rent is budgeted to increase by 4.1% equating to £4.12 per week.
Continuing to invest
The draft 5-year capital programme demonstrates the Council’s continued commitment to district-wide investment. General fund investment of £107 million will continue to develop new long-term income streams from commercial property to homes for sale or rent. Separately, the £185 million Housing Revenue Account capital programme will continue to improve and upgrade existing council housing and build new council housing for rent.
The benefits of flexible working are being reaped and the Council will continue to invest in ICT infrastructure. There are also plans to upgrade the Council Chamber hybrid meeting systems allowing staff and councillors to meet remotely.
A second vehicle and 2 additional apprentices for the Highway Ranger service are also included in the draft budget.
Praise to staff and councillors
Councillor John Philip and Council Leader Chris Whitbread were fulsome praised councillors and staff who assisted in achieving such as good draft budget in such difficult circumstances.
Final budget recommendations will now go to Full Council on 24 February 2022 along with the setting of District, County, Town, Parish and Police Council Tax precepts.
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