A FREEZE in council tax, £1.4 million worth of investment for Dursley swimming pool and sports centre, and measures to reduce the impact of the recession on local communities have all been approved as part of Stroud District Council’s budget for 2013/14.
The council’s spending plans for the year ahead were voted through at Ebley Mill on Thursday night (January 23) by a clear majority of Labour, Lib Dem and Green Party councillors, who together form the ruling rainbow alliance which runs the authority.
Conservative group members chose to abstain from the vote after some voiced reservations and others outright opposition to SDC’s plans to spend the bulk of its £2.1 million budget upgrading Dursley Pool and Sports Centre.
The budget, which officers said was designed to ‘stimulate the local economy and create jobs for local people’, also included £342,000 for the council’s carbon management programme, £250,000 to help the authority purchase land for housing and £100,000 to fund the installation of a new lift at Ebely Mill to make the council chamber more accessible to the public.
SDC’s leader Geoff Wheeler said freezing council tax against a backdrop of higher living costs and low wage increases, would ‘make a small contribution towards easing the pressure on household budgets’.
The Labour Party politician also highlighted the council’s investment in its carbon management programme as a key component of the budget, saying the £300,000 to fund combined heat and power generation at Dursley pool and Stratford Park Leisure Centre would help the authority reduce its ‘large energy costs’.
An additional £42,000 earmarked for the programme, which will be spent on smaller energy saving projects in council buildings, such as more efficient lighting and cavity wall insulation, would also allow SDC to keep its costs down while freeing up money for essential services, he said.
But Cllr Wheeler and his coalition colleagues were forced to defend the £1.4 million expenditure on Dursley swimming pool, which is intended to transform the complex into a fully-fledged leisure centre with new gym facilities and a dance studio.
Conservative Cllr Dorcas Binns (Minchinhampton) questioned why £1.4 million was being spent on the scheme, whilst a ‘paltry’ £50,000 had been set aside to help residents in the rest of the district cope with the economic downturn.
“I am not being cynical but I am sure it has got nothing to do with the fact that Cllr Wheeler is a representative for Cam and Dursley,” she said.
Cllr Binns also suggested the project did not represent good value for money, pointing out that only three and a half jobs would be created at a cost of around £400,000 per job.
Her Conservative colleague, Tory group leader Keith Pearson (Upton St Leonards) echoed her concerns and said he could not understand how his opponents could characterise the Government as a ‘monster coalition’ indifferent to the public's suffering when they themselves were only spending two per cent of their budget to help people affected by the recession.
He said: “£1.4 million to increase Dursley pool is very admirable but in the context of this budget inappropriate. I’m not anti-Dursley or anti-Dursley pool but I think it’s inappropriate.”
However, Labour, Lib Dem and Green Party councillors queued up to lend their support to the project, with many insisting the scheme would benefit the district as a whole.
Labour Cllr Doina Cornell (Dursley), said: “You are talking about a sum of money which is being invested in order to get an income back eventually.
“Sometimes we have to spend money to make money. Ten years down the line we will have a really good revenue stream coming in from that investment.”
Cllr Simon Pickering (Green, Slade) expressed a similar sentiment, saying: “This council is actually investing in projects which will bring a return to protect the services that we want to provide and I think that’s a positive thing.”
Conservative non-group member Nigel Studdert-Kennedy (The Stanleys) voted in favour of the budget and also leant his backing to the initiative.
“On balance the budget will have to be supported. If there’s another project showing this return then that’s the way to go. I don’t think we need a fight over this money being spent in Dursley.
“It is investing across the district as people have asked that we do. I’d like to please everybody but we haven’t yet discovered a method of doing it.”
Speaking after the meeting, SDC’s leader Geoff Wheeler said: “Dursley Pool has an excellent reputation and is valued greatly by the community.
“Aside from its successful swimming programme, there is also a huge demand for activities such as exercise and dance classes and a gym.
“As part of our commitment to the health and wellbeing of our population this will be a big step which will continue to deliver long term benefits.
“Currently we can only provide these activities in the evenings and at weekends, at another site nearby, but this investment will allow us to provide a comprehensive range of activities throughout the daytime.”