Posted by: nigelashtonuk | March 18, 2010

Budget 2010

Despite having spent most of the year working on the budget, as we have done similarly for the previous two years … this year’s budget has been the hardest to finalise by a long way.

Each year we are faced with making savings and people always ask “why do you have to make savings when council tax goes up and the government says they give us more money each year?” Quite simply any increase we get in our core funding which is only around £51 million and any affordable increase we have to put on council tax, which is around £90 million, those small increases are not much on a £450 million budget and is far outweighed by either the reduction or freezing of some of the specific grants we get, or the relentless growth in demand for vital services.

This year has been no different, (in the demand for services), with child care rising by 25% to around 250 children, at one point, following the baby p tragedy and adult care continuing to grow, what has been different this year is the effect of the recession. Interest on deposits and income from fees and charges for services, all being severely hit, whilst at the same time, demand for services increasing for the same reasons. Jobs and homes threatened, people spending less, shops and small businesses closing, savings being depleted meaning more people being eligible for free care services.

Despite that we are still proposing an increase in net service budgets of just under 8% (including growth of £3 million) for CYPS and just under 2% (including growth of £4.3 million) for adult services. Whilst also increasing the contingency to £1.1 million.

Even though we are told that the actual recession is statistically over, I do not believe that 0.1% growth for one quarter is very reassuring and we all know that even if we have started the long road to recovery, the country has a huge annual deficit of £178 billion to reduce which would still leave a debt of over £ 1.3 trillion plus interest to cope with. We also all know that all major parties are now competing on how severe, cuts in public spending should be, when only a few months ago none of them were allowed to say the word “cuts”.

Many decisions have been put off until after the general election… core funding, specific grants, public services structure, desperately needed capital for infrastructure to support the levels of housing we already have as well as the additional growth being demanded, even without a legitimate regional spatial strategy. The future of hundreds of quangos that spend untold millions is in doubt and how many people really know that there are four levels of active local government in this area, each responsible for spending taxpayers money. Are we going to take on some of those duties without all the funding?

In setting our budget we have had to deal with the known problems and prepare as best as possible for the far more significant unknowns.

I believe that the actions we have taken over the last three years and the achievements of all our staff, have put us in the best possible position to deal with what is to come.

Could we have allocated more to direct budgets or reduced the council tax increase, no I don’t think so. Some other local councils have used reserves to keep their increase down, I do not agree with that… either in principle or given what is to come. If any of the rumours or suggestions about future funding is true, then as a nation we are all going to have to accept that many more of us, as individuals and communities, are going to have to rely on self help and less on someone else being paid to do it for us. That is going to be very difficult to accept and will be a huge responsibility for all taking the decisions, including everyone here today whatever party they may represent. Even now we hear people acknowledging the financial difficulties but at the same time refusing change or any reduction in services that they have come to enjoy and expect as a right. We must change our attitudes or risk losing more.

Could we or should we have increased council tax, of course we could have done but I think that would have had a negative effect for two reasons. Sending out bigger bills to residents at this time, would have created more resentment and placed some, in even greater financial hardship, adding to the effect of the recession locally but more importantly… Keeping the financial pressure on revenue expenditure, planning ahead instead of reacting to events and investing to save, has meant that staff at all levels have had to find better ways of doing things… and they have done an excellent job.

We have cut bureaucratic and administrative waste, reduced management structures, outsourced services best done elsewhere and reviewed many of our other services for possible action later. And we will continue to do so. Some have understandably felt that we have done too much too quickly. I’m sorry but in my view, they are wrong. What they see as too many unconnected changes are all part of a comprehensive intentional strategy to make this council a leaner more efficient enabling council, producing better services that will be sustainable in the future.

It would have been so much easier to have continued things as they were but that would be irresponsible expensive and unsustainable. We live in the oldest average age region in Europe and yet are the lowest funded region in England. I cannot see either of those changing. By review and change we will be better able to protect more services.

On a wider scale, we need to show that North Somerset can cope with the changing role of local government, central government is already forcing us to work with other partners and other councils on a wide range of issues, some of it makes sense some of it does not but we have to be prepared. Few of us want to see the return to Avon where we were unfairly dominated by Bristol and  funding for our own local services suffered. However, working with partners on a voluntary basis when it suits, achieves efficiency and retains local control.

We have already seen the rapid increase in sub regional and regional government that most people have never heard of, taking multi million pound decisions on our built environment. The regional government known as the strategic leaders board covers too big an area for the sort of decisions we are involved with and to my mind merely adds another layer of expense and with decisions being taken too far from those it impacts on.

However, our sub regional government, the West of England Partnership, made up of the four local Unitaries, works well on common causes because it is largely on a voluntary basis. We also have the North Somerset Partnership, local public services, businesses and voluntary sector, working together. We have changed the structure and focus of this partnership and I now believe it is showing real results against a wide range of targets, I am sure that the future of local government is as an enabler for different sectors to work together, councils in the future will not be the main providers.

Chairman with these principles in mind, we have already had many successes we will have made savings of approximately £40 million over four years. With little or no detrimental effect on front line services.

We all know the success of our schools with the CYPS department being rated as one of the best in the country, social services again getting three stars, highways repairing more miles of roads than ever before, tourism up… against the trend, as we heard earlier tonight highways, the ranger service, the contact centre, the start team, the communications team and the community meals team, all showed commitment, enterprise and a wonderful attitude in difficult circumstances, the music department being rated so highly and being praised for excellent innovation, NS Life being rated the best of its kind in the country, we again were awarded Investors In People, attained level three of equal opportunities, 80% of residents now saying they think that North Somerset is a good place to live, crime is down, investment is up. The new sea wall will soon be finished, we will have a new pier square and finally after eight years of inaction by the RDA, we have made a start on employment led development at locking parklands.

We will make progress on the Tropicana, we will protect our museum service and Playhouse, we will improve the tourist information service and Winter Gardens and we will have an excellent new waste service (weekly) saving millions in fines. Our internal support service review is progressing well, the purchase of an office in Clevedon and the investment in this building to increase the numbers working here, will improve working conditions for our staff, improve the efficiency of services and save money, preparing us for the future.

It is not just our view that North Somerset Council is doing well, we are recognised in government departments, services inspectors have rated us highly, we have recently received excellent reviews from the Audit Commission and from our recent peer reviews. All have recognised the strong and effective, political and managerial leadership, the excellent work and attitude of the staff and were impressed at the work and involvement of scrutiny panels and individual members which achieves so much.

Given all the difficulties, the achievements of our Chief Executive Graham Turner whose leadership here and at West of England has been so influential, our directors, David Turner whose wide ranging department always appears to bear the brunt of savings required and yet still delivers, Phil Hall for his advice and guidance on all the budgets again throughout the year but also for temporarily taking over Children and Young People’s Services so seamlessly and effectively and Jane Smith for maintaining such a high standard during years of growing demand and constant inspection. Their senior teams and especially our staff, have been excellent.

I would also like to thank the executive, the scrutiny panels, and all councillors of every group for their vital contributions. Despite differences I believe that we all want to do our very best to ensure that North Somerset continues to be the success it undoubtedly is. The lowest council tax increase in the South West, over the last three years and yet the best performing unitary in the country.

We will keep the pressure on and we will continue to improve.

For all these reasons, I support this budget and the proposed increase in council tax of just 2%.