After the budget-setting meeting at Louth Town Council last month, the Trust’s chairman, Councillor Andrew Leonard, said he was “very disappointed that Labour councillors in particular, are yet again not more supportive of Louth’s very important and very special beauty spot.”
The precept requested by the town council budgeted for a £45,000 grant to the Trust.
The contribution from the town council used to be £35,000 per year, but this rose to £45,000 in the 2017/18 financial year to help with ‘day to day maintenance costs’, and the annual grant has stayed the same each year since then.
At the meeting last month, two councillors from the Labour group (David Hall and Jason Garrett) voted against the precept request, while two others abstained (Alex Cox and Lynne Cooney) alongside Conservative, David Ford.
The precept request was still approved by the council, resulting in a 3.87% decrease in its share of Council Tax.
Following the meeting, Coun Leonard told the Leader: “A recorded vote was taken at the request of the (Labour) party on the town council budget, when these councillors said the grant to the Hills was their reason for rejecting a 3% plus reduction in the town’s Council Tax requirement from residents!
“The Labour Party also criticised the Trust for building up a large financial reserve, despite the Trust’s explanation of its intention to use the money on future works needed in the hills.”
Coun Leonard continued: “We have been prudent with the money given by the town council and local people, and not embarked on a frivolous spending spree in order to appease a political party.
“There is an Environment Bill presently going through Parliament, requiring public authorities to enhance biodiversity when delivering their functions.
“We have almost 100 old or dangerous trees to replace in the Hills in the next couple of years, and the Trust has been setting aside a very substantial sum of money to cover this.
“We have also earmarked a site where we will be planting an initial 40 trees, in a positive move to support Louth Town Council’s carbon footprint.
“Supporting biodiversity in the Hills contributes to our health and wellbeing, and is an important part of our cultural identity, and what makes Louth so special.
“We have a responsibility as councillors to work together to enhance our valuable asset, so their lack of support is perplexing.
“We also have to restore the toilet roof and we will have bridges to replace following yet another wave of vandalism. None of this comes cheap!”
The Leader approached the two councillors who actively opposed the precept request at last month’s meeting.
Coun Hall replied: “We oppose the extra £10,000.
“We don’t object to giving Hubbards Hills money for the fabulous work they do, but we do object to them using the council as a way to fill their piggy bank, as they have a sizeable reserve of their own. The extra £10,000 was originally for the vandalism of the bridges three or four years ago now.”
Coun Leonard responded to Coun Hall and Coun Garrett (see below) by saying that they had been provided with ‘full and valid reasons’ for the grant request, and reiterated the reasons listed previously in this article.
He added: “They seem not to have a grasp of money and how it’s going to be used”.
“Hubbards Hills must carry a large reserve because, as the public know, it is regularly subjected to vandalism, and ongoing tree work can happen without notice.”
• Councillor Garrett: “The extra £10,000 should be reviewed”
Labour councillor, Jason Garrett said he voted against the precept solely because he does not agree with the level of funding being given to Hubbards Hills - adding that the increased grant in 2017/18 should have been reviewed year after year.
Coun Garrett said: “I asked at the time that this should be a one off, and that future funding needs to be reviewed.
“Here we are, several years later, and the funding has remained the same, yet no scrutiny has taken place.
“The council has not been given a detailed report showing a breakdown of expenditure, nor has any detail of any future expenditure plans been shared with the council.
“According to the Charities Commission, the Hubbards Hills Trust currently has around £137,000 in their accounts, which is an exceptionally high reserve when the yearly average expenditure would appear to be only around £27,000.
“If this was any other organisation, serious questions would have been asked by now.
“I cannot justify a yearly underspend of £20,000 per year when there is little evidence to support the level of funding received.
“If funds are being saved for projects I want to see evidence and costings of what they are, with time frames of when work is planned to happen.
“Any raising of these concerns quickly gets shut down at council meetings, and I do not doubt for one moment that myself and a few other councillors will once again be in the firing line, as evidenced by the party political point scoring that certain councillors undertake.
“I may be in a political party, but that is because I believe the electorate should know where their councillors sit on the political spectrum.
“I am free to vote any way I wish, just like every other councillor. No one controls or influences my vote!”
Coun Garrett concluded: “Hubbards Hills is a fantastic place to visit. I do feel, however, that the council should have a greater say, and control, over what goes on there, and the Trust needs to be much more open and transparent with their plans and expenditure.”