MAYOR ON WEDNESDAY: Savings are welcome but let’s not spin the figures

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ANY money that the council can save in the current climate is not only welcome but essential.

Hartlepool Borough Council must make around £25million of savings/cuts over the next four years just to keep our heads above water and I’m sure that figure will increase as the Government implements more cuts.

I expect to see dozens on stories in the Mail over the coming months of areas where the council is making savings and I also expect the new council to follow on making the savings in areas that will have a minimal effect on frontline services.

Unpopular decisions will undoubtedly have to be made and I expect to see a lot of them made sooner rather than later simply because there aren’t any local elections.

Most councillors will see it as a good time to make the unpopular decisions early on in the new governance arrangements in the hope that most people will have forgotten about them by the time the election comes around. That is how a politician’s mind works.

The dilemma that councillors will have is twofold: firstly the decisions will not get any easier in a couple of years time due to the magnitude of cuts that need to be made so they will be unpopular anyway and secondly, most councillors will want to show that the new committee system is working and will be hell-bent on trying to minimise the negative stories and show they are making popular decisions.

I don’t particularly envy them to be honest.

I do hope however, that the quest for positive news stories coming out of the council doesn’t end up in some of the facts being spun and exaggerated in order to make them look better than they actually are.

Far be it for me to complain about the council being able to save £120,000 from its annual budget especially as it is being taken from the budget for elected members but the inference in the report in the Mail last week was that the saving has been generated because of the change from the mayoral system to the committee system and this is not quite the full story.

There will indeed be a headline saving on the budget of £120k but a large chunk of this money is already being saved and contributing towards the council’s overall budget savings.

Let me explain. When I sacked six members of the Cabinet in early 2012, which meant six special responsibility allowances (SRAs) ceased to be paid for the final two months of that financial year, generating a saving of £5,767 in 2011-12.

I then only replaced two members so the saving for this financial year has been £23,068 on SRAs for Cabinet members.

Finance officers didn’t permanently remove this amount from the budget in case the size of the Cabinet changed again hence the reason is will be removed in May.

An amount of £21,000 is also being taken from the budget that was put in there to allow for inflation and therefore is not a result of the change of governance arrangements.

The other part of the saving that isn’t mentioned is that each position of special responsibility is budgeted for but if one councillor holds two or more of these positions, only one is allowed to be paid and there have been three members fall into this category in this financial year generating a saving of £11,535.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs but I’m sure at some point, some councillors will try to make political capital by saying that they have saved £120k a year by changing from the mayoral system to the committee system when actually, £55,603 of that budget was already being saved this year with me still here.

This is on top of the £80,738 on councillors’ basic allowances I had already saved by successfully reducing the size of the council from 47 to 33 councillors in 2012.

Like I’ve said already, it is great that we can take £120k out of the members’ budget for next year and it is exactly what we should be doing but let’s make sure we furnish people with all the facts about where the money is coming from, especially when nearly half of it is already being saved, and not leave the door open for people to spin the figures for their own political gain.