WINCHESTER civic chiefs have pledged to get “even more for even less” after approving their annual budget.

The Conservative-led council rubber stamped its 15.4m budget at a full meeting.

It involved freezing council tax for a second year in a row, with the Band D charge remaining at £126.27.

Finance boss Cllr Stephen Godfrey said: “I am pleased to be able to present a balanced budget without increasing council tax or reducing any of the council’s essential frontline services.
“We have started to address challenges by gradually reducing spending and reorganising teams and functions. This current financial year has been difficult but we near the end of it without having made any significant changes to the budget.”

But the Lib Dems criticised the cabinet for balancing the budget with £500,000 from council reserves, with £1.1m more expected to be withdrawn next year .

Lib Dem leader Kelsie Learney said: “We need to start immediately looking for radical changes in the way the council provides services. There are things we do very well but many of these things can be done adequately. We can still provide a good service to our residents without providing a gold-plated one.

“We should agree a council tax increase and re-evaluate the budget within the financial envelope that brings.”

Cllr Martin Tod added: “The only thing I can see we are getting less of in the future is our reserves. It would make a huge difference if we are prepared to make the harder decisions earlier so we are not faced with having to make dramatically harder decisions in one or two years time.”

But council leader Keith Wood defended the budget and said it was a sensible approach.

He added: “Where we can continue to provide a good service for Winchester residents we should do. Our policy is to gradually ensure that council finances are sound and we will take responsibility for that.

“We want to promote the city as a place to do business and have more people employed here and get more money that way. We have to be much more inventive than simply cutting costs.”

As reported in the Chronicle last week, councillors declined to award themselves a pay increase in their allowances.

But the proposals included making the council a Living Wage Employer, a system which guarantees its lowest paid staff enough income to meet basic living needs. The current living wage set for outside London is £7.45 per hour.

By not increasing council tax the authority is able to claim a Government grant of £70,000 – equivalent to a one per cent increase.

The budget covers council services such as refuse collection, housing, environmental health and planning.

It was carried by a majority verdict.