Sometimes in life we don’t deserve what we get and we certainly do not deserve the budget that was passed last night in the Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council chamber.
During the financial year nothing is certain regarding the financial status of a borough council. Sometimes windfalls occur such as some that you may have heard about through local news channels, there are other smaller ones that no-one will have mentioned. The fact is that council budgets are set annually and we have to cut our cloth according to what we have. The difference last night was one of philosophy. Labour proposed to keep more of your wealth in their hands whereas the Conservatives proposed to give more back to you to decide what to do with it.
Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council is in a healthy financial position contrary to what others may lead you to believe and there were three options. Keep the cream in the bank, invest it in the fabric and services of the borough or give it back to the public by reducing council tax.
Before I go any further I will say that in the past I have a mixed voting record at budget setting meetings. This is the most important Full Council meeting of the year and, as is my way in every meeting, I weigh up what is best for the people of Barpool Ward (and incidentally myself because I live on Barpool Road if you are a new reader) and vote accordingly. Labour or Conservative makes no odds to me as I have never been either. I vote for the best budget whichever side of chamber it comes from. Last year I was the only Cllr to vote against the Labour budget because all of the Conservatives walked out of chamber at the beginning of the meeting. I have presented a budget myself in the past which balanced and fully presented and seconded but both sides refused to debate it. Such is the state of local democracy.
As is customary the Leader of the Council (Cllr Dennis Harvey Labour) began proceedings by presenting the Labour budget. The main points of the Labour budget that interested me were: a proposed a 0% increase in Council Tax and the freezing of all fees and charges that the council is responsible for. Theirs was a pretty plain budget with a few things I didn’t like based on a theme of securing the boroughs finances for the future year. Fair enough.
The bits I particularly didn’t like were as follows:
On the front page there was a trumpeted extra £5,000 for revitalising town centres but on the next page £11,000 to be removed from town centres budgets to be later identified by management. (-£6,000 for town centres then).
On the pet projects front Labour’s ‘Breakaway Club’ for children to which last year only one child from the boroughs top ten most deprived wards visited received an extra £30,000. The point of the club was for children from deprived areas. It only runs at The Pingles and Civic Hall and is very poorly attended in comparison to the play rangers which is attended by literally thousands and is extremely popular in deprived wards.
Voluntary Service providers in the borough with the Citizens Advice Bureau being the best known, provide fantastic services to residents in most need and are crying out for cash. I was surprised to see a £5,000 reduction in their budget. They have managed to save this money themselves by relocating and making other efficiency savings and I expected that they would be able to then use this money to further their work. Apparently Labour thinks otherwise.
So, a £6,000 reduction in town centres budget which was trumpeted as a rise,
£30,000 for a pet project
and a cut to the subsidy of the Voluntary Services of £5,000 from the Labour Party?
I don’t like it but if it gets residents a 0% council tax increase and no rises in fees and charges then I will swallow it.
Unless the Conservatives can come up with something better.
The opposition leader (Cllr Des O.Brien Conservative) presented the Conservative alternative budget. The main points of the Conservative budget that interested me were: a 3% reduction in Council Tax, the reversal of last years car parking increases and a reduction in market stall rents to help the town centres, a £150,000 Community Fund to be allocated to projects in the borough to be decided in consultation with residents, and three new posts; one for an External Funding Officer to help community organisations based in the borough to source grant funding, one for an Animal Warden and the last for an Environmental Enforcement Officer (among other things getting graffiti cleaned up). This is much more exciting stuff, but you know I am going to say it, there were a few points that I did not like. At first reading I was not even sure that it was deliverable if I am to be honest with you but more on that further on.
The bits I particularly didn’t like were as follows: Saving £70,000 by no longer funding union officials. A Conservative central office populist hot potato this one. The Conservatives themselves increased the number of union reps in the council when they were in control because they recognised the benefits that they brought to the organisation. On the face of it a very popular point with their voters whereas in practice a saving that would cost more if implemented, and they know it! An increase in bus station charges from 40p to 50p per departure. This is per bus not per passenger but I don’t like it. Buses almost by definition are used most by those with the least and finding underhand ways to take extra from them is never going to be popular with me. This ‘poor tax’ was increased by Labour last year which has clearly signalled to the Conservatives that it is fair game.
So, a false saving which reduces union representation,
and an increase in fees which only hits our poorest residents was part of the offering from the Conservative party.
No contest really was it? Both budgets have negatives which is always the way of it and always will be. Labour’s 0% council tax does not compare favourably to the Conservative 3% reduction. Similarly the Labour freeze in fees and charges does not compare to the cuts in fees and charges proposed by the Conservatives.
Don’t forget that these promises all have to be funded
and the council left with sustainable reserves.
Both budgets were examined by the Section 151 Officer (Chief Financial Officer) and shown to provide robust estimates of income/expenditure, a risk assessment of the assumptions provided, and the proposals for balancing the budget were accepted as being achievable.
The reserve position of the council (General Fund plus Housing Revenue Account) would be £10.2M with the Labour budget and £9.5M with the Conservative budget at the end of the next financial year. Incidentally they are predicted to be £11.2M at the end of this financial year, can’t you tell that there is an election in May?
I agree with the Chief Financial Officer in the council that these reserves are adequate.
So, time to vote.
Whereas it is a foregone conclusion that every Conservative hand and every Labour hand will rise when their leaders does on every single occasion I have the choice. On this occasion I voted for the Conservative proposals outlined above. On balance in these hard economic times I felt that giving more back to the taxpayers by reducing council tax and reducing fees and charges overall is the correct thing to do as it in no way threatens the sustainability of the finances of the authority. Unfortunately more of you voted for Labour than anyone else at the last election so democracy rules and you will have to pay more council tax than you otherwise would, the town centres will be further impoverished and I do hope that none of you need the services of the voluntary services sector, or at least if you do that you are prepared to wait longer.
A final observation if I may. There are some good brains on both sides of the council chamber and once again, when presented with two separately prepared full budget statements, I found myself wishing that at local level when it comes to setting the budget the two teams could work together. If they could then you really would get a cracking budget! Sadly I suspect that this will never be the case.