The Bickerstaffe Record
«
»

Being Labour, Breaking News, Cotterill on the Council

Labour’s budget speech in full

02.26.10 | Comment?

As a bit of a hobby, I act as Glorious and Wise Leader of the Labour Opposition on West Lancashire Borough Council.

In this position, I made a speech last night setting out Labour’s alternative budget proposals for 2010-2011. 

In many ways the difference between the two sets of proposals reflects the wider debate between Labour and the Tories about how to manage public finances in the post-recession period.  In short,  it’s the ‘invesment vs cuts’ debate.

So I’ve copied the speech (minus the odd ad-lib on the night in response to what the Tories had already come with). 

It’s long (40-45 minutes), it’s detailed, and some of the detail will be imprenetrable to those who do not know the local scene, but I thought it might give a taste of the public services battle on the front line.  Or at least in the Council chamber, which is a councillor front line of sorts. 

And anyway, I spent ages writing it, and it’s my blog so I’ll publish what I want.  Enjoy.  Or ignore.  There’ll be another post along soon enough.

Budget proposal speech, 24 February 2010

Opening remarks

The budget proposals from the Labour group have one central theme.  This theme is about taking responsibility.   It’s about looking outwards towards what the people of West Lancashire need and want, and working out how best to provide that.  It’s about looking for opportunities, and taking responsibility for seizing them.

It’s not about looking inwards, not about self-congratulatory verbiage on ‘careful management’ or ‘prudent planning’.  It’s not about cut-backs that councillors think make them look ‘firm-handed’, while the rest of the population of West Lancashire askance about the loss of important services at a time when reserves remain ample.  

It’s also about getting money circulating in the local economy, not letting it sit unnecessarily, at low interest rates, in bank accounts. It’s about seeing the wider picture, and the councils place in that.

It’s not about avoiding doing things.  It’s about actually getting on with the job of local government.

Process

Before I get into the detail of our proposals, a word or two about the process involved in drawing them up.

We know of course that we will lose the vote on the budget this evening, unless of course my powers of oratory are somewhat larger than I think they are.  Our proposals are therefore indicative of what Labour will do if, as is planned, it sweeps into power in the coming local elections, but perhaps more importantly of the broad strategic direction this council will take when Labour does take control of the administration.

It would not have been appropriate, in circumstances where senior officers are (as acknowledged by a cabinet member at the January meeting) ‘very stretched’, to have spent huge amounts of time with officers going through the budgets line by line, seeking savings where they may lie, and judging where additional ‘micro-investment’ might be necessary.  That will be a job to do when we are in control and in a position to make our budget proposals happen.  

Instead, the proposals we set out here are fairly broad brush, indicative of what our direction and our commitment to the priorities of the people of West Lancashire.  Given this, we largely accept the ‘starting position’ provided us by officers and presented to cabinet and then to Executive Overview and Scrutiny, along with the more recent updates on the position. 

This starting position reflects, more or less what would happen in term of the overall budget so-called ‘gap’ if the same things happened over the course of the year, but without taking into account pay increases.

Before moving on though, I do just want to offer  a comment the way in which the pre-budget papers are always presented to the meetings preceding this full council, and indeed on how budget material is always presented to the public of West Lancashire.

While the information presented is always of a high standard of ‘finish’ from officers, with coherent analysis of the main issues facing the council, there tends to be one glaring gap. 

This is that the question of how much there is in reserves never receives specific mention pre-budget.  This is particularly the case in the leaflet that accompanies the Council Tax announcement to all residents – a matter which I know has been taken up with the council by alert residents.

While for the last two years a paper on reserves has been produced separately, their level is not configured into the overall pre-budget analysis, and therefore only a partial picture of the financial position of the council is ever provided. 

Any business or charity worth their salt, when reporting back to share and stakeholders, will always provide a ‘bottom line’ figure in the balance sheet which includes an assessment of reserves, and of how much might be used appropriately to grow the business or charity while retaining sufficient funds as a buffer.

It is good, therefore, to see some progress this year in the full council papers before us tonight, with – at paragraph 4.6 – a clear setting out of how much is in the reserve, and how much is available the General Revenue Account, namely 5.4 million when other sections of the overall 22.6 million reserve have been accounted for.   Labour will, though, be pressing for more explicit recognition of reserves both in public literature and in subsequent pre-budget analyses.

The appropriate use of reserves is a matter to which I will return. 

Detailed proposals

So to the detail of our proposals.

Because there is an interrelation between our General Revenue Account and Housing Revenue Account proposals, particularly around the matter of re-charging, I will cover both aspects of the overall council budget in this set of words,  and will restrict myself to a few comments when it comes to the Housing Revenue Account budget item – I’m sure Cllr Hopley will be delighted to know. 

First though, the General Revenue Account.

I won’t go through this line by line, but will pick out the main features as they relate to our commitments over and above the ‘base budget’ gap identified by officers, before moving on to how these commitments can be met through judicious use of income that the council can secure and through the appropriate use of reserves.

So our main commitments (which you’ll see at Section D of the GRA budget handout).

Sports Development

We’ll put money back into the Sports Development Team, and get back up and running again a service which was, until recently, the subject of celebratory press releases about the effectiveness of the staff’s work in reducing anti-social behaviour, but soon after tossed on the job-slashing scrap heap in the so-called ‘downsizing’. 

In putting this money back in, we’ll have the courage of our conviction that this type of socially beneficial activity can drawn In external funding to help it not just get started again, but to increase its service over time.  This is the kind of service which is perfectly well fundable from other sources, not least in the context of the 2012 Olympic push around sports and physical activity, and it is frankly, ridiculous to have the service in this way, and to have denied staff the opportunity to draw in the external funding available.

Investment in transport

As an adjunct to the investment set out above, we’ll also make available a small amount of pump-priming money to the Youth Council, or to another suitably responsible body to use for getting young people to and from leisure activities. This is in the realization that the cuts already made both to the Sports Development Team, and more widely within the youth service, mean that young people are likely in the short term are going to have to travel further than they might otherwise have done.

While it would be up to the recipient body to make best use of the resource made available, both in terms of levering in other cash on top of it and getting best value for money, it might be sensible to link it in – at least in part – to the planned Phoenix Demand Responsive Transport scheme.  That is, of course, if a scheme that has now been deferred form cabinet 9 times ever sees the light of day.

Additional benefit payment capacity and money advice

Providing additional benefits payment capacity in this delicate post-recession period is clearly necessary, and we are delighted that sensible officers within the council have gone against the cut-cut-cut grain of this administration and advised that additional expenditure really is needed.  We are happy to support this recommendation from officers.

But in a further move, we’ll also put money into the money advice service – an essential adjunct to what officers recommend.  We know full well that this is an essential service for many of our poorest residents at this difficult time, and while the challenge to the service is that will pay for itself in terms of monies saved on rental and council tax defaults, it is important simply to get on with a service which keeps vulnerable households and families together.

Free swimming

Our objections to the, erm, objectionable decision by the administration to turn down thousand and thousands in government grants for the provision of free swimming for young people, alongside entry into the programme for refurbishment of swimming pools which recently brought £600, 000 to Wigan’s swimming facilities, is well-known.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity to access government grants has now closed, and there will be no money in from central government.   This is the reality of Conservative negligence towards the young people of West Lancashire.  The calculation that were used to decide that free swimming was NOT viable for this administration while it was perfectly ok for local authorities all around were based on the cost of staffing if usage increased 40%. In contrast, use of West Lancashire’s pools by young people declined by 8% during the summer holiday period just gone.  We still await figures for the whole of 2009. 

But even in the absence of such external funding, we must do something about this mess.  Therefore we’re putting £25,000 into the budget, to be matched by a similar sum we would envisage coming in from the Primary Care Trust – just as the Primary Care Trust indicated might happen back in September 2009 – to get on with a free swimming offer even in the absence of the government support spurned.  The issue of how much Serco might be ‘invited’ to contribute, given their track record to date, remains an open question.

Neighbourhood management

We know from the evaluation conducted at the end of the Safer Stronger Communities Fund programme, funded from central government, that neighbourhood management works – not just in terms of effectiveness, but in terms of cost.  The savings produced for the agencies involved – for example in terms of reduced fire service call outs – far outstrip the cost of making neighbourhood management in the first place.  The police are convinced enough of this to be already putting money into retaining their part of the overall neighbourhood management contribution, although this is still dedicated to their own resources rather than to the overall pot.

If the approach works, we need to roll it out, not least in light of the emergent findings of the Corporate Overview & Scrutiny review.

We  are therefore putting into the budget the cost of a neighbourhood manager (based on the period post –recruitment) for another area of West Lancashire, with the challenge that future costs of this staffing be met from partner agencies in light of the savings to be made.

Neighbourhood management works.  That’s clear.  We need to get on with doing it.

Bin collections

We’re putting in a reasonable sum to the Street Scene Division to develop and pilot ways in which the refuse collection service can be improved; while many councils continue to offer a weekly bin collection service, this administration has simply decided this is not achievable, or even desirable. Once again, it has opted out of responsibility for sorting out the things its residents actually want. 

What we’ll do is offer up this investment in the context of the Street Scene director’s thinking around ‘area by area’ collections, with the challenge that moving to this ‘clear it all, then move on’ approach might develop enough economies of fuel and time that areas can start to be revisited for refuse collection more frequently.

Of course this is an outline proposal, and would be firmed up much more if we were n control, but it remains as a commitment to reversing this administration’s reduction in service, while still being open to the laudable innovation of officers doing their best under a Conservative administration’s short-sighted directions.

Pest control charges

We’re putting in £10,000 to the immediate reduction of pest control charges, with a view to their complete abolition as an when it is proven that a reduction increases uptake.  This is a gradual approach because the downsizing has taken capacity to deal with pests out of the system and we need time to restart the pest control service completely.

Bulky waste

We’re putting in £10,000 to this service to give scope to officers to recommend what we should do – enter into full partnership with a suitably funded social enterprise creating a ‘double bottom line’ of much needed service and employment opportunities, or get on with the job as a council and get back to the levels of service that were being provided before the price hikes drove down demand so hugely.

Reduced recharges to the HRA

We are budgeting for additional expenditure in the GRA by way of transfer into the HRA to support what we consider priority projects, and I’ll come back to this when I tackle the HRA budget.

Concessionary travel

We are committed, quite simply, to ensuring that older people in West Lancashire get fair deal, and this means putting money where our mouth is – not in the appointment of an Older People’s Champion, worthy idea though that may be – but in doing the things that really count.  One of these things is making sure older people can get around the area.

At the moment, the concessionary travel package offered by the council is insufficient, particularly in respect of train travel.  The voucher offer of £28 each is, quite frankly, an insult.  Are older people only allowed to go out somewhere 8 times per year?

We’re therefore putting in an additional £150,000 to concessionary travel. While we’re not earmarking it specifically, we would envisage that it might be devoted principally to allowing, through negotiation with the operator over the first few months of the financial year, free rail travel and therefore superseding at least in part the need for vouchers and rail cards. This would create additional finance for the package and bring us closer to the point where free travel is open to all older people.

There is, though, a wider dimension to this offer, and one which requires the kind of aforethought that does not come easily to this administration. 

First there is the issue that responsibilities for this area of spend are likely to go to the County Council in 2011.  Given this, it’s vitally important to set the precedent down, and get down a marker of what is provided to older people, so that the county needs to build that provision into its plans subsequently.

Second, and perhaps even more important, is the issue of rail infrastructure improvements in West Lancashire. We are, thanks to Network Rail’s utlilisation strategy in particularly, nearer than we have been for many years  in West Lancashire to securing real improvements to the rail network, whether it be through Ormskirk or through, and into, Skelmersdale.  But a key issue for the rail network and operators going forward will be latent demand for any new service – knowing the services will be used is what really makes the business plan tick.  To do this, we need as an authority to take real responsibility, get people traveling even on the existing network, and help provide the case for additional investment – not in terms of £150,000 we’re talking about here, but in terms of the many, many millions that new track and a new station would bring.   In other words – invest to gain.

Redevelopment of regeneration capacity

We will reinvest in the capacity of the regeneration division, which has been reduced to a shell by this administration via its downsizing.  Specifically, we will re-invest in external funding expertise lost in the last year. 

In terms of this budget, this will link across to the efforts to re-inflate the sports Development Team in particular, providing additional capacity in the skill area of project development and bid writing, but will be a resource across the council to ensure that opportunities for additional income are seized.  This is particularly important given the recent conclusion to the European Regional Development fund programme, and the pending conclusion to the Investing in Business programme brought to the area in 2000 under a Labour administration.  Yes, the policy framework has changed in that large scale regeneration funds are dispensed less through competitive bidding processes and more via strategic frameworks, but this only increases the importance of having expertise within the council which can not only bid for resources on its own behalf, but also work with local partners on bids for resources that bring benefit to residents, whoever the formal applicant.

We envisage that this renewed service will pay for itself within the year.

How to pay for these commitments

How do we meet these commitments financially?

Put simply, we’ll use reserves as they should be used, and should have been used for years by this administration – to pump prime activities which either create future savings or draw in income which will cover costs in the future.

While, then, we identify £509,000 of the additional spend coming form reserves, our calculations suggest that only around £30,000 is on items which are other than temporary input, either because they are ‘one-year only’ or because they offer savings and income down the line.  Frankly, a £30,000 hit on reserves of 5.4 million is a drop in the ocean, well within normal in-year budgeting sensitivities.

This then, while it offers so much to the residents of West Lancashire that have been denied so much by this administration, remains a conservative (with a small c) budget.  This budget comes even in advance of the more rigorous examination we will take on when we regain control of exactly how and how far the reserves should be reduced so that they both meet immediate need AND develop provision for the longer in a wholly sustainable manner.

Of course, as you can see from the paper presented, not all comes from the reserve. There are three other main sources to close the budget ‘gap’.

First, there are the savings identified by officers and contained at section B of the paper. These of course, include a projected £100,000 saving on the top-tier re-organisation.  This is a saving identified by officers on the basis of the ‘pink paper’ tonight, and in light of the paper’s ‘pinkness’ I set this aside for now, happy to accept the officer recommendation for now. 

Also included in this section is an £80,000 saving on the initial projection for the pay settlement.  This was at 1%, which in our perspective is the least that hard-working, committed and often low-paid staff should be getting.  As it turns out, the Local Government Employers organization is offering 0%, which we consider an insult.  We therefore, for the purposes of the budget, assume a final settlement of some 0.5% after what I hope will be robust negotiations.

Other income we assume in this budget, and allocated to appropriate priority areas, is £100,000 from the LAA Performance Reward Grant, which will amount to perhaps a third of a million in this year, and will be spent via the Local Strategic Partnership.  In particular, we would want this funding to pick up the neighbourhood management investments we identify above, as well as other initiatives in keeping with the LSP thematic objectives.

Finally, what of council tax?

Finally, what of council tax?

Let us make clear here and now that, in principle, we have no problem with council tax rises which reflect both the rate of inflation and the cost of additional services which we, as democratically elected members, learn from our constituents are worth investing in as a local authority.  This is why we supported the 1.75% council tax increase proposed by our county colleagues, because in their considered view it was better to raise the tax slightly than see some of the massive, ‘swingeing’ (to use a Cameronian) adjective) cuts bow being imposed by the reckless Conservative administration in Preston.

We also need to point out what an increase in council tax actually means in real terms, as the Conservative administration is always so keen to boast about its 0% rise as though it was the most important budgeting decision it could possibly ever make. It is not.  1% in council tax equates to just £69,000, or – put differently – a pint of beer per year for an average household.  Or 5p per week. 

Council tax is less important to the council currently than the rate of interest received on the money held by the council, and the way the Conservatives harp on about the council tax as be all and end all, is somewhat disingenuous.

With all that said, West Lancashire is different from Lancashire.  Quite simply the level of reserve hoarded by the council over recent years is such that on this occasion it is simply unnecessary to increase the tax. Our proposal, therefore, is for a 0% tax increase.

Housing Revenue Account

Now let’s move to housing.

In brief, this is what Labour proposes. 

The way we have managed the budget means that we are able to meet both key priorities for the future of housing in West Lancashire, and meet current expectations.

First, the commitments.

In short, the way we have managed the budget means that we are able to meet both key priorities for the future of housing in West Lancashire, and meet current expectations.

Revenue

As far as initial estimates are concerned we accept officer calculation but highlight the following potential ‘invest to save’ options:

First, we will prevent the “churn‿ in young people not sustaining tenancies by appointing a dedicated officer to provide support this would generate savings of  £45,000.

Second we will re-let long term vacant warden accommodation, generating additional income of £21,000.

We will appoint a dedicated officer to bid for council House New Build to ensure a supply of rented accommodation for those needing housing.  This post would be self funded through the Homes and Communities Agency’s grant and future rental income.

In the interest of time, I’ll move quickly on to perhaps the more substantive issue of the capital programme, and the expectations of tenants.

Put simply, and in keeping with the paper you have before you, our proposals would ensure that the Council can fulfil its prior commitment to tenants – now cast into doubt by the Conservative administration – to invest in all the new kitchens for the next year, Further we will provide an immediate investment in new kitchens in Findon and Firbeck and provide for double glazing for many tenants including Firbeck Court.  I know that other colleagues will want to pick up on the importance of such a commitment to a group of tenants who have been excluded from the capital programme on the basis that they and their homes are simply not worth the effort.

Finally we will also provide finance to start upgrading properties with electric storage heaters.  I know Cllr Pendleton and others might want to make some comment, given their experience in this area, on how this might be most successfully managed.

Our other commitments are set out in the paper provided, and confirm our commitment to decent housing for all in West Lancashire, in keeping with the wishes clearly expressed by tenants w have talked to, including their representatives on the Tenants and Residents Forum.

How to pay?

How to pay for it?  Again, you’ll see the main sources set out on the paper provided. In particular thought, I point first to the reduction in central recharge by the GRA on the HRA, or – as it might be put – a reduction on the additional tenant tax levied by the council for works such as grounds maintenance.  My colleagues may wish to say more on that.

Second, and more importantly to the overall picture, we create the ‘headroom’ to pay for the things people really, really want and need by getting rid of the plans for the things people in West Lancashire really, really don’t want or need.  I refer to the Abbotsford Regeneration plan and the building of new council offices – not a council priority, and not something we should be wasting thousands on, first through needless demolition of perfectly good housing stock, and now on a vanity project to enhance the council’s status, but not its performance.  Again, my colleagues may wish to comment further.

Summary

Members, I have presented budget proposals – albeit in outline form – which reflect what a council should be about. 

Taking resident priorities on board, taking responsibility, making it happen.  I ask for your support.

have your say

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. Subscribe to these comments.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

:

:


«
»