TAX bills will rise for Middlewich residents from April after town councillors insisted they had no choice but to increase the precept for 2020-21.

It comes a month after Middlewich Town Council was rocked by a damning audit report that found a series of failings in the way it handled its accounts in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

The shock findings included a failure to register for VAT – and the town council is still waiting to hear how much it could owe in a hefty tax bill, potentially worth more than £100,000.

At a special meeting called to approve the budget on Monday night, councillors said they were disappointed to raise the precept, but were acting on the advice of auditors.

Cllr Helen Watkinson, chairman of the council’s internal committee, said: “We still must exercise caution because we don’t know everything yet.

“The VAT is a big unknown at the moment. We don’t know if we are going to be fined, if we are going to be treated quite kindly, the legal advice we have taken is going to help us make sure that the bill can be as small as possible.

“The figures for the increase work out at less than a penny a day for people on a Band B property, and to put us in a position of financial probity, I think the town should be reassured that it is good value for money.

“I am disappointed, but it is our priority to make the council fiscally responsible and financially legal.”

Middlewich Town Council will rake in a total of £384,714 from the precept in 2020-21.

That is a five per cent increase over the £366,394 it will have collected by the end of 2019-20 – including a 3.9 per cent precept rise, with the remaining extra cash coming in from new homes.

It means residents in a Band D property will pay an additional £2.97 towards the town council across the year.

While councillors were disappointed to increase the rate, Cllr Pauline Hickey admitted she felt a ‘sense of relief’ that the council is tackling its financial issues and not ‘burying heads in the sand’.

Cllr Carol Bulman added: “I don’t think we should be all doom and gloom about this. We should be positive about it.

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“We are now going to be stable and we can start organising the things we want to do in a sensible fashion.”

The decision was taken despite a vote taken at December’s meeting signalling the town council’s intention not to raise the precept and Labour’s manifesto pledge to ‘end massive council tax increases’ last May.

And councillors were reminded about both of those promises by resident Jacqui Eyre, who suggested members had ‘blown trust out of the water’ by raising the precept.

“I hope you are all suitably embarrassed over this,” she said.

“You conducted an election campaign criticising the budget and that you would reduce it. You call it ambition – I call it false promises.”

But Cllr Mike Hunter defended the precept hike – insisting that Labour members ‘knew there was something wrong’ with the council’s finances but never expected what the auditor found.

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He said: “We thought that it was going to be unresolved cheques and things like that. We did not expect that it would be thousands, and thousands, and thousands of pounds to be liable for.

“Yes we would love to bring that precept down and I am so disappointed that we can’t.

“And yes we did run a campaign to say we would – and we will when we can. When the council is financially sound, we will do it.

“But we cannot do what the previous administration did and set a false budget. We have to set a budget that is right. We have taken advice on that budget, and that is what we have done.”

Labour swept the board in last May’s election, winning all town council seats it contested alongside independent Cllr David Latham.

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The town council precept is likely to be one of four tax bill increases facing Middlewich residents from April.

Cheshire East Council tax bills are expected to rise by a total of 3.99 per cent from April – including two per cent for social care – while both Cheshire Police and Cheshire Fire Authority are also considering increasing their rates.