The mood was unusually sombre at Frome Town Council’s 17th January meeting. There were no surprises as Cllr Lisa Merryweather, leader of Frome Council, unveiled the 2024-25 work programme and budget, having already taken the unprecedented step to warn residents that the town council’s budget would be set in response to Somerset’s financial crisis.
Cllr Merryweather opened the discussion by expressing sympathy for colleagues at Somerset Council, saying it wasn’t the moment to assign blame, but rather to work together to respond to challenges, and minimise the impact on Frome residents. She acknowledged that many people are already in financial difficulty and that the decision to increase the local precept (the element of council tax paid to the town council) was not taken lightly.
Cllr Merryweather then went onto say: ‘Frome Town Council will continue to work with the community and partners to support our residents and offer the very best value for money for the people of Frome, taking over services from Somerset Council where appropriate. The precept increase will enable FTC to negotiate with Somerset Council, to protect services that the community holds dear. These include keeping the Market Yard toilets open, including the Changing Places loos, protecting the parks and open spaces, and protecting vital services that could otherwise be lost. We do this in the interest of health, wellbeing and accessibility for the people of Frome.”
In budget terms, the precept increase represents a 29% increase to the FTC element of council tax, which will be spent in Frome supporting residents. This budget will represent an additional £1.07 or less per week for 70% of our residents who pay council tax and those who are not eligible to pay will remain exempt.”
Cllr Max Wide then posed the question: ‘How do we respond to a financial emergency in Somerset, with imperfect information?’ He said that councillors needed to be able to create a direction of travel in areas they know are important to residents, and that local leadership could even deliver enhanced provision for Frome, with the knowledge to work effectively with the voluntary sector in the town.
A member of the public who attended the meeting, asked how the council could justify a precept increase in a cost-of-living crisis and the cumulative impact on residents. Cllr Nick Dove responded, saying “We haven’t asked to be in this position, we’ve arrived at this position. There’s something horrible coming down the line and I think it would be negligent of us if we didn’t plan, to have some kind of contingency funds, to deal with it.”
Lenka Grimes, Fair Frome coordinator said: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand over the last few months – not just for the food bank, for the furniture bank, all services. I am really concerned. I realise for people on 100% relief for council tax, that will continue, but for 70% of households it matters. 40% of people who come to us are working, there’s a really fine line at the moment. I also understand it is a dilemma and you’ll be doing a lot of things to address a lot of those issues.”
Rich Ackroyd, a former FTC councillor said: “It’s never easy to set a precept. Let’s think back; people said we were wasting our time trying to buy back the town hall and that it would never work… and (now) is a fantastic resource. The Cheese and Grain is going from strength to strength. By being creative, thinking ahead, you can actually do things. If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got. If I were still on the council, I’d be voting for this.”
You can watch the meeting on YouTube at https://bit.ly/ftc-meeting-17th-jan-24
You can see the detail of the budget and the work programme at https://bit.ly/ftc-precept-2024.