BLAENAU Gwent Council today approved a 4.6 per cent council tax increase, the largest in Gwent, along with contentious proposed cuts to services including raising the price of cemetery graves.

The council formally approved its revenue budget for 2014/15 at a special meeting of the full council where it needed to find £10 million worth of savings to balance its books as part of a £20 million saving over the next three years.

Among the most controversial of the savings proposals which were approved are increasing cemetery charges.

The price for a new grave is currently £839 and the proposed new charge was £1,800, while it was suggested re-opening a grave went from £442 to £950.

However, deputy leader of the council Steve Thomas suggested amending the sum to £1,200 for a new grave and re-opening a grave to be charged at £730, which was approved by the majority of the council.

The meeting also set the level of Council Tax for 2014/15 and members approved a 4.6 per cent increase. This is the largest council tax hike in Gwent - Caerphilly approved a 3.9 per cent increase, Monmouthshire and Torfaen both went with a 3.95 per cent rise and Newport has set its council tax at 4.5 per cent for 2014/15.

The meeting was told that the council has forecast a balanced budget for the current financial year and there is a small overall underspend – meaning it would not need to draw on any money from reserves.

Leader of the Council Hedley McCarthy said that very tough decisions had to be made as the council had received its worst ever funding settlement from Welsh Government.

He said: “We find ourselves in the council’s most challenging financial position to date. We have been forced to make some very unpopular and unwelcome decisions about services and also raise Council Tax. However, these are important decisions that we have had to make to ensure the financial future of this council.”

Eight independent councillors voted against the budget proposals, including Cllr Kevin Brown who spoke out against the cemeteries price hike, saying the increase would affect hard-working people in the borough who were on low wages.

Leader of the minority group Cllr John Hopkins and Cllr Nigel Daniels both argued against the cuts, including Cllr Hopkins’ suggested amendment that the price for a new grave be increase by 25 per cent rather than 36 per cent, which was put to a vote and defeated.

Cllr Daniels said: “Setting the council tax at 4.6 per cent while decimating services and increasing charges and dismissing staff like the home care workers is going to have a significant effect on our constituents.”

Other revenue savings approved for 2014/15 include stopping the stray animal impounding service at a saving of £49,125, although it will continue to remove them from the highway, charging for replacement bins, saving £10,000, ending the annual environment awards, at a saving of £10,000, and no longer running council-funded weed spraying in the borough – at a cost of £20,000.