Budget is the best we can do

WE are coming to the business end of the budget setting process over the next few weeks and Monday’s cabinet meeting was the final consideration of the proposals before it was sent to full council for agreement.

Well, when I say agreement, I’m optimistically hoping we don’t have the shenanigans we suffered last year and the budget will have a relatively smooth passage through council.

In actual fact, considering the scale of cuts that continue to be imposed on us by the Government and the changes we are being forced to make, the budget proposals are not that bad even though I do say so myself.

What the cabinet has tried to do is absorb the cuts as far as possible and protect frontline services.

Our forward planning over the last few years has been so good, it has enabled us to be able to this point with our heads still above water and a minimal impact on jobs and services.

We will continue to complain about these cuts especially as Hartlepool’s share is disproportionate to other, more affluent places.

We will continue to lobby Government to get the best deal we can for the town. However, we will be realistic and practical when it comes to preparing ourselves for the inevitable.

I don’t think there will be much within the budget proposals that councillors will have a problem with and the feedback from scrutiny has been positive.

The one area that might cause some contention is the level of council tax. It usually does.

Once again the Government are offering Councils a grant of the equivalent of a 1 per cent increase in council tax for two years if they freeze council tax again for next year.

In our case it would leave us with an extra £400,000 of saving to find in the year 2015/16 on top of the potential £23,009,000 that we are predicting as a worst case scenario.

The Government have us over a barrel and you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t.

The cabinet proposal to council was to take the grant and freeze the level of council tax for next year and here’s why;

The council has unanimously decided to take the grant and freeze Council tax for the last two years.

They were well aware of the pros and cons of doing this each year and the issues are exactly the same this time around.

Each year, councillors have stated that we must do all we can to help households in these tough economic times and I believe we should do so once again.

The changes to the welfare system come into place in April and as a result, 8,600 households are either going to have to pay Council tax for the first time or get a big increase on their bill anyway.

We openly admit that we cannot predict the effect this is going to have on collection rates for council tax or how many people will be pushed over the breadline.

To give these households a double whammy and increase it even more will end up being self defeating so it would be more sensible to wait until these changes have bedded in until we look at increase the bill even further.

Ministers have recently made some thinly veiled threats to councils who ignore the Government grant and raise tax themselves and said they will look to target and punish those councils next year.

I have serious doubts as to how legal that would actually be but, at the very least, they will not look favourably on those councils when it comes to other things.

Hartlepool is currently lobbying hard and asking for a special favour regarding the localisation of business rates.

We are the only unitary council which houses a nuclear power station and, under the new rules, a shut down would cost the council millions.

I would not to do anything that may jeopardise an amicable solution to our problem with Ministers.

Freezing council tax once again will certainly store up a greater financial problem in the future and I do not profess to know what the answers will be in 2015/16.

In truth, no one does. If the budget deficit is still £23.4m when we get to that point, we might as well turn off the lights.

In reality, a way will be found to find the savings, we have no choice. In the meantime, I believe we should take what we can while we can to make things as manageable as possible for the public of Hartlepool and freeze the level of council tax.