An Essex council will spend £185 million and building new and improving its social homes, upgrade its council chamber and hike council tax bills.

The council tax residents pay to Epping Forest District Council this year will increase by £5 to £157.46 for a Band D property, and council house rents will rise by 4.1 per cent.

And £185 million will be spent on council house repairs, regeneration and building in the district, £75 million of which will go towards building 212 new properties and acquiring 89.

Leader of the council Chris Whitbread (Con, Epping Lindsey and Thornwood Common) said at a meeting last night (February 24): “This budget, with the increase that’s included in it, does protect frontline services at a time when they will be needed and I think that has to be recognised.

“This is going to be a very tough time. In future years, especially with inflation increasing and interest rates rising, and the pressures that will come in the post-pandemic period, we will have to make some hard choices.”

But plans for a £160,000 upgrade of the council chamber, which includes buying new microphones and speakers, and cutting contributions to voluntary groups by more than half were criticised by some councillors.

The council will also spend an extra £100,000 on access works for a new cafe in the civic offices.

Cllr Stephen Murray (Ind, Loughton Roding) said while he supported the budget overall, Epping “needs a new cafe like it needs a hole in the head” and that upgrading the council chamber “seems a gold-plated version.”

Lib Dem group leader John Whitehouse (Epping Hemnall) too welcomed some parts of the budget, but criticised the planned cuts.

He said: “One of the ones I can’t support is cutting the grants to voluntary organisations by more than half.

“There are a lot of small voluntary organisations in the district which do an awful lot of very valuable work.

“It’s quite right that we fund at a high level the Citizens Advice Bureau and Volunteer Action but these small organisations are also really important and that is a really, really big cut to that budget line.”

In addition to reducing spending on voluntary organisations from £90,590 to £41,820, contributions to animal welfare will be cut from £27,750 to £4,530, and food inspections from £3,640 to £3,320.

Cllr Whitehouse also said the council had “barely spent” £9 million on its building, and already asking for another quarter of a million to “finish the job”.

Defending the decision, finance, Qualis client & economic development portfolio holder Councillor John Philip (Con, Theydon Bois) said: “Almost everything in this chamber is listed, even the things you think probably shouldn’t be, quite a lot of the things you think probably shouldn’t be, and that makes making any changes to it much more costly than they might otherwise be.

“But it is important that we actually get this working and get it working well.”

Other spending pledges in the budget include £25 million for a new sports centre in Epping, £4.855 million in disabled facilities grants, a £1.477 million redevelopment of industrial warehouses in Cartersfield Road, Waltham Abbey, and £40,000 in extending the Highways Rangers scheme.

There will also be tax increases at parish, town and county council level, as well as from the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex.

The national government is giving most households this year a £150 council tax rebate in an attempt to mitigate the cost of living crisis.