INCREASING tax by 4.99 per cent in April is not a decision Cheshire West and Chester Council is taking lightly, its leader insists.

Scrutiny committee members gave the cabinet a two-hour grilling over plans for next year’s budget at a meeting on Monday night.

It followed a six-week public consultation on plans for the 2019-20 budget that took place last autumn, which had 303 responses.

Cllr Samantha Dixon, leader of CWAC, told members that support for the most vulnerable residents in the borough were of ‘paramount concern’ of those who took part in the consultation – and that the council tax rise would help the authority provide that.

“Increasing council tax is not a decision that we take lightly and cabinet is mindful of the financial burdens that increases place on residents,” she said.

“However, due to the increasing pressures facing adults’ and children’s social care, it is considered prudent to increase the basic council tax by this amount.”

“However, recognising the financial challenges that face some of our residents, we continue to support financial support through the council tax reduction scheme, the discretionary hardship fund and a help scheme.”

Respondents to CWAC’s consultation said they wanted the council to fund measures to tackle homelessness and improve both adults’ and children’s social care, Cllr Dixon told the committee.

She added that the budget-making process had been hit by uncertainty from national politics – with Brexit, the Government’s upcoming spending review and a delayed ‘green paper’ outlining how social care should be funded  all factors.

A report presented to the committee highlights a £21.4 million funding gap for the council in 2019-20 – including a £4.6 million reduction in Government grants, plus budget pressures faced by services.

Cllr Neil Sullivan, shadow cabinet member for legal and finance in CWAC’s Conservative group, called on the council to step up to the challenges ahead with fresh ideas to raise funds.

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He said: “Clearly the pressure is on local authorities to maximise their own income apart from controlling costs, and make sure we live within our means. Those of us in authorities like CWAC, which is very prosperous and very dynamic, should be capable of actually generating more of our own wealth over time.”

Cllr Lynn Riley, leader of CWAC’s Conservative group, added that the council’s growth forecasts are usually ‘quite conservative’.

But Cllr Ben Powell, Labour, insisted that it is right the council makes more cautious predictions.

He said: “If we did an overly-optimistic forecast on growth and that money did not arrive, what impact would that have – would it put the council in a deficit position?

“It is easy to look for easy solutions. Sometimes I feel like people are walking down a street full of kebab shops looking for a Michelin star restaurant.

“There are no easy choices, every option is tough – if it is not tough today it is tough tomorrow.”

The budget was endorsed by cabinet on Wednesday, and will be brought to full council on February 21 for approval.