HOUSEHOLDS in Bridgwater will face higher council tax bills as the town council takes on services from Somerset's cash-strapped unitary authority.

A Band D home will now pay £295 per year – a rise of £183 (164 per cent).

This will lead to a 10 to 15 per cent rise in residents' overall council tax bills, which will include Somerset Council, police and fire service precepts.

Other town councils have voted for similar hikes; Band D homes in Taunton and Yeovil will pay an extra £192 and £130 respectively in 2024/25.

Bridgwater Town Council's fresh budget was approved an extraordinary full council meeting at the town hall on Thursday evening (February 1).

Its total precept will rise from £1.15 million to £3.07 million.

Leader Brian Smedley (Labour, Westover) said the measures will save jobs and services at a cost of a few extra pounds per week for households.

But the Conservative group criticised the proposals as “sudden and substantial” and said the move should have followed a “thorough consultation” with taxpayers.

Somerset Council declared a financial emergency in November, blaming the rising cost of delivering services such as adult social care and high inflation and interest rates.

Its leader Bill Revans wrote to town and parish councils asking them to consider taking on greater responsibility to help Somerset balance its books.

Bridgwater Town Council will take on several assets and services under a package of devolution such as street cleaning, road sweeping and management of parks and open spaces, including St Matthew's Field and Fair.

In April, the town council will also take responsibility for Bridgwater Arts Centre, which it has budgeted £138,000 towards based on ‘conservative’ estimates of its income and expenditure for the financial year.

Cllr Smedley said the council ‘has to’ and ‘wants to’ take these measures due to Somerset's budget shortfall and to bring more devolved power to Bridgwater.

“This isn’t a budget that people should be scared of,” he said. 

“This is a budget for jobs, services and assets.

“In one sense, we have to do this. We have to do it because Somerset Council is in a dire financial situation.

“They’re sacking people, they’re selling off assets and they’re cutting down on services drastically.

“We were a long way ahead of the game on this one. We’ve been talking about devolution since we knew the unitary was on the cards.

“And unitary has been a disastrous policy for Somerset.”

Bridgwater Mercury: Somerset Council will take responsibility for more services and assets, including St Matthew's Field and Fair.Somerset Council will take responsibility for more services and assets, including St Matthew's Field and Fair. (Image: Mike Jefferies)

He added: “This might look like a hard-hitting budget at the moment, but it’s not.

“It’s money that we need to raise at this point in time to do these things. When you say it’s 164 per cent, that’s just £1 or £2 per week.

“Bridgwater can come out of this whole unitary situation with the budget crisis well by supporting the town council.

“We’ve got a good future for Bridgwater. Let’s hope this budget is a nice way to start that process.”

The council's properties portfolio holder, Cllr Tim Mander (Labour, Westover) said: “The whole package is something which we should be applauding.

“At a very difficult time, we stepped up to the mark.

“It’s painful for some people, and I appreciate that, but in the long term, people will welcome us doing what we’re doing.”

But Wyndham Cllr Gill Slocombe, leader of the Conservative group, said the measures will have a disproportionate impact on lower-income households.

“Residents in lower council tax bands, such as A and B, are likely to have limited disposable income,” she said.

“For these individuals and families, even a modest increase can significantly strain their budgets, affecting their ability to cover essential expenses.

“Only today, I had a resident despair that their home insurance increased by £100 this year. 

“They didn't know how they would cope with this additional council tax increase on top of that.”

Bridgwater Mercury: The budget was voted through at an extraordinary full council meeting on Thursday.The budget was voted through at an extraordinary full council meeting on Thursday. (Image: Newsquest)

She added: “We believe that the proposal for such a significant tax hike should have been preceded by thorough consultation and engagement with the community.

“The Conservative group feel that these proposals are too ambitious at this time.”

Conservative councillors Slocombe and Diogo Rodrigues abstained from voting on the budget. All present Labour councillors voted in favour.

Somerset Council has said it is considering “unprecedented” and “heart-breaking” steps to bridge a £100 million budget gap.

Cllr Revans said: “We’ve been fully open about our financial emergency and have sought to raise awareness of the broken system of local government funding, where costs for statutory services like social care are rising much faster than our ability to raise income.

“Meanwhile, we have been exploring every option and working proactively to find alternative ways to run services which we can no longer afford.”

He hopes “many other services will be protected by working in partnership with our excellent communities and their city, town and parish councils”.

Bridgwater Mercury: Brian Smedley, leader of Bridgwater Town Council.Brian Smedley, leader of Bridgwater Town Council. (Image: Brian Smedley)

At the same meeting, Labour's members voted to pass a scheme that will make town councillors eligible for a £1,240 yearly allowance.

The proposals were recommended in an external report from Somerset Council's Parish Town and City Independent Remuneration Panel.

Cllr Smedley said it is “fair and overdue” that town councillors – who are not currently given an allowance – should be recompensed for their work, especially with Bridgwater taking on more services.

Cllrs Slocombe and Rodrigues voted against it.