COUNCILLORS have narrowly backed a controversial budget which includes spending for Winchester’s new multi-million pound leisure centre, as well as a council tax freeze for residents.

In a heated meeting of Winchester City Council, members voted along party lines except for Liberal Democrat Richard Izard who broke ranks to praises the work of the Conservative administration.

Much of the criticism related to the inclusion of spending for the new leisure centre, with opposition councillors saying more scrutiny was needed.

The spending on the leisure centre was included in the council’s capital investment strategy, which was approved by 23 votes to 20, Cllr Izard abstaining.

Many of the concerns heard in previous meetings regarding the leisure centre were repeated, and were met with similarly familiar rebuttals from Conservatives in the Guildhall.

As previously reported, most of the concerns centre around the plans to only include an eight-court sports hall, rather than the 12-court facility originally proposed.

Despite being larger, the sports hall would still have the same number of courts as River Park – the leisure centre it is replacing.

During the meeting last Thursday, finance portfolio holder Cllr Guy Ashton gave a presentation addressing claims that have been made against the project over the past year.

However, Lib Dem leader Cllr Lucille Thompson said: “It’s a missed opportunity to build a facility with the right-sized sports hall. I don’t know what world Cllr Ashton is living in.”

Cllr Kelsie Learney added: “I think it’s appalling... All concerns have been swept aside.”

City council leader Cllr Caroline Horrill slammed critics for focusing on one issue in the budget, warning opposition councillors they would have to face residents and explain why spending on key areas such as flood defences was not made if the budget was rejected.

Meanwhile, the plans to freeze the city’s council tax were signed off, although not for those living in the city centre.

It means the current amount paid to the city council by residents in Band D properties will remain at £138.92 for the 12 months starting April 1, while those living in the city centre will see the amount rise from £67.17 to £6,919 after Winchester Town Forum approved a three per cent increase.

However, all residents will still see their bills rise thanks thanks to a county increase, which makes up the majority of the overall bill.

Conservative councillors rallied behind the budget. Addressing the Lib Dem group, Cllr Eileen Berry said: “I can tell you now, I have more faith in what we are doing and I would be trembling if it were in your court... You are not even putting up a good defence.”

Cllr Linda Gemmell added: “This is a budget which is balanced, it’s called living within your means.

“We are laying the foundations for a strong future.”

Breaking ranks, Lib Dem councillor Richard Izard said: “This budget isn’t all about the leisure centre.

“It’s a good budget, there are problems with the leisure centre but we have got to think about the bigger picture.”

Meanwhile, the council’s housing programme received support from across the council.