BY SARAH BISHTON

THE average Council Tax payer in Bracknell Forest will see their final bill rise by almost 12 per cent after the borough council approved its revenue budget for 2003/04.

The Times reported last week that the council's share of the tax rise represents a 7.9 per cent increase.

However with the addition of parish, town council and police authority levies, announced last week, bill payers will be forking out even more.

Residents can expect to pay £967.85, up from £874.21 from last year. The figure is comprised of £810 (Borough Council's share), £106.24 (police), and £51.61 (Town Council).

Despite the rises, leader of the Council Paul Bettison said residents could count themselves lucky.

He said: "The Government told us that our Council Tax should rise by 33 per cent and many councils in the South East will be implementing rises that are well into double figures.

"It's thanks to our good track record in financial management that the actual increase is well below this and we are making a major investment to maintain and improve services."

At the full council meeting last Thursday, members ratified a budget of £100,508,000 - an increase of 11 per cent on the current year's budget and more than £2 million below the level of spending assumed by the Government.

Cllr Bettison continued: "This is an excellent budget for Bracknell Forest which ensures we will meet our priorities, maintain quality services and make improvements within the resources we've got.

"We have saved money through increased efficiency of services and made good use of reserves.

"The proposals include a number of important changes that are a direct response to our wide ranging consultation over the last two months, showing that the Executive does listen to the comments we receive."

However Leader of the Labour Group Cllr Austin McCormack accused the Tories of "being dishonest" about this year's budget, and said "there are too many cuts to front line services".

Speaking after the meeting, he added: "Speaking as a resident, an eight per cent council tax increase is not bad. I was worried that the Government was robbing Bracknell. But the Tories are still arguing about how the money will be spent.

"Looking at your budget, you have been dishonest. There are cuts to front line services. Children, the elderly, people with learning disabilities. Cuts, cuts, cuts."

Meanwhile Ray Earwicker, spokesman for the Bracknell Liberal Democrats, who have no seats on the council, said that "once again the public are being asked to pay more for less" and that "the council has identified some savings but not enough."

At Thursday's meeting councillors heard that extra spending planned for the borough includes £2 million for social services, including £300,000 for children's placements, and more than £750,000 invested in leisure services at the borough's sports and leisure centres.

The main aims of the executive's budget, members heard, are to provide funding to further improve and develop the key service areas of education and social services, to protect the Local Education Authority so that it can continue to provide effective leadership and support schools, and to re-invest in leisure services.

Education once again makes up the biggest single part of the budget with a £58,669,000 planned spend on the boroughs 40 schools and on managing its education service.

Just over £33.5 million of the revenue budget expenditure will be met from money raised directly from the Council Tax. The remainder is met by the Revenue Support Grant and central Government business rates.

Further proposals for the coming year include maintaining investment in improving the quality of the visual and physical environment and in all other existing front-line services.