TAXPAYERS in the Wokingham Borough face a £53 hike in their bill next year.

The figure was announced last night at a meeting of the full council to set the budget for 2009/10.

Council tax for the average household has risen by 4.8% to £1,176, and council leader David Lee defended the increase as in "the mid range" for councils in the area.

In a ding-dong affair in the council offices at Shute End, which saw Lib Dem opposition accuse Conservatives of "creative accountancy", he said: "This Conservative administration has carefully managed the financial affairs of the borough for a number of years and this budget will enable us to move forward based upon sound and prudent financial management, and most importantly, with the ability to bring forward clear and achievable policies."

But Lib Dem opposition leader Prue Bray used her allotted speech to attack all facets of the budget and said: "This budget comes in the middle of the worst economic downturn for many years.

"People are having to cut back on what they spend and some will face losing their job or home.

"These are difficult times for our residents. It's hard enough for them to find the money for their existing bills, let alone to find the extra for a council tax rise that is almost the maximum the Government would allow."

Announcing a total budget for 2009/10 of £201m, Cllr Lee said that Wokingham was "the worst funded local authority in England, if not the British Isles" having to give back £10m a year to central government.

He said: "We get 20p in every £1 we spend (from the Government) the rest comes from the residents, and as I said we actually give more back overall than we receive

"We get £120 per resident, the average is £370, but we have a clear responsibility to our vulnerable children and the elderly, and to ensure much needed investment, we have had to make some very difficult decisions."

Cllr Bray retorted: "Just to be absolutely clear, the figures show that far from being a net contributor to government of £10m, Wokingham was a net beneficiary to the tune of about £120m in the last year. That's quite a difference.

"I can understand why it is the leader of the council has chosen to paint a dire picture of the council's government funding.

"Tonight he is putting forward a budget which he knows contains cuts in service, increases in charges and a higher rise in council tax than residents would like and he would dearly love to be able to offload the blame for that on to someone else, namely central government."