Budget’s best we can do

AT regular intervals over a number of months, I have tried to explain the budget process through this column and describe the difficult situation we find ourselves in.

I’ve tried to simply an extremely complicated financial quagmire and make it understandable as to how and why the cabinet come up with a set of proposals despite the cuts and the constraints in which we have to work.

The cabinet have put together a budget for the next financial year that will address the level of reductions that have been imposed on us and as far as absolutely possible protect frontline services and therefore people’s jobs. We met on Monday to finalise our proposals and it will now go to full council tomorrow for approval.

Extensive consultation has been carried out over recent months. Every councillor has had ample opportunity to feed into the budget process and we have consulted the public, the trade unions and the business sector on numerous occasions.

All the feedback has been taken into account and the only real contentious issue amongst the general public was the withdrawal of the free bus service to all English Martyrs pupils.

I can understand why parents are angry that a free service is being withdrawn but, to be fair, we are only bringing that school into line with all other schools in Hartlepool and ensuring that they now conform to council policy on free bus travel.

That is that families on low income ie free school meals, and those who live three miles away or more will still be eligible for free travel, as with every other school in town.

Regardless of the cuts, this would have almost certainly have happened anyway as it is an anomaly unfairly discriminates against pupils from every other school in Hartlepool.

The biggest issue that affects the general public is the level of council tax.

The Government have offered councils a grant of the equivalent of a 2.5 per cent council tax rise in order to get councils to freeze it again this year. In Hartlepool’s case this equates to around £1m. The problem is that the grant is for just one year whereas if council tax was raised by the same amount, we would get that million pounds every year from now onwards.

At the last count there are 148 councils who are not taking the grant and increasing their council tax as this makes more sense in long term financial planning terms.

The problem with running governments, locally and nationally, is that elections get in the way and many decisions are made for a short term gain i.e a few extra votes, rather than long term stability.

In reality, with all of our councillors up for election in May, no one is going to stick their hand up for a council tax rise and I can’t really blame them.

Things are hard enough for everyone at the moment and it would be extremely hard to justify hiking up people’s council tax when the Government is offering up a grant in order to freeze it.

So, the proposal is to take the grant and freeze the level of council tax for a second year. On top of that, I will write to the Government and ask them to think about using the money that is not taken up by 148 or more councils to help those that have frozen Council tax in years to come.

There have been a few proposals come through the scrutiny forums to be added into the budget, most of them to make the role of being a councillor easier next year.

Some of the proposals are pretty good ones. For instance, I’ve always been in favour of each Councillor having their own individual budget to spend in their own ward.

However, this (£216,000) along with other things like a furniture project (£50,000) and particularly retaining the money saved from the reduction of councillors (£66,000) would all be “nice to haves” in more affluent times.

Cabinet felt they could not justify supporting these issues financially, particularly given the fact that we have to find more than £15m savings over the next three years.

We have taken the view that every spare penny needs to go towards tackling future budget deficits and I would hope that, even though some of them won’t be here next year, most councillors will be of the same view.

One of the big areas of savings both next years and for future years is the outsourcing of ICT and revenues and benefits.

Cabinet made a decision last year to bring these together and look at them being delivered by a private partner.

Outsourcing is a bone of contention anyway and goes against many people’s core principles.

I understand that but considering the level of savings that are needed over the next few years and particularly the changes to the benefits system, it will leave many staff and the service itself in that area extremely vulnerable.

By outsourcing, not only will we generate a level of savings getting on for an eight figure sum over the course of the contract, it is written in such a way that gives job protection for the staff and will create more jobs in Hartlepool in the future.

A relatively small amount of up front cost, included in our budget proposals, will generate huge savings and protect and create jobs. I would hope even the most staunch socialist will see that and support the proposals.

The council’s budget is a hugely complex set of numbers which takes months to prepare and it governs what we can and can’t do but, at the end of the day, I think the public only want to know that their services are being protected.

This budget does that.

Their taxes are not going up, this budget does that and that if they or someone they know works for the council, that their job is safe, this budget absolutely minimises the number of jobs being lost.

It really is that simple and I’ve got to say that despite the current financial climate and the cuts and this being one of the most challenging budgets I’ve had to put together, it is by far the most robust, well thought through and forward looking budget that we have produced.

It will be presented to full council on Thursday evening and I sincerely hope the political posturing and electioneering is put to one side for a moment and that the budget is agreed unanimously, as it was last year.