The annual meeting to agree Luton Borough Council’s budget was held this month on Wednesday 16th February. I was there sitting on the Liberal Democrat benches in my role as a local councillor. As usual the meeting generated a lot of heat and only some occasional flashes of light, and as seems to be becoming a habit I probably ended up speaking too much.
Local government and the services that it provides face some significant challenges as a result of our current economic circumstances. You would think that this provides an awkward political problem for a Liberal Democrat who supports the coalition government but also is an elected member of a council forced to make cuts. Well it is not pleasant. You are constantly reminded that the decisions being made are effecting people’s jobs and services that they rely on. But I am not embarrassed or defensive about the role of my party nationally or locally.
Although you might not think it from a lot of the political arguments we have seen over recent months, all the major political parties are agreed that the UK needs to reduce its budget deficit. Yes, there is disagreement about how and how fast, but there is a consensus that it needs to be done. It was inevitable that this would have an impact on local government.
The Local Government Association describes the amount the government is providing to local councils as “the toughest settlement in living memory”. I have some issues with how the government have approached this local government settlement. I have very little time for the current Secretary of State for local government, Eric Pickles, and am very sympathetic to those Liberal Democrat local government leaders who wrote a letter to The Times attacking the front-loading of local government cuts imposed by central government.
However, even with a more competent and sympathetic minister and a different approach, the state of the public finances are such that Luton Borough Council, along with the rest of local government, would still be dealing with reductions in its funding.
The budget gap that the council expected to have to find before the general election last year was £16 million. The actual gap that the budget agreed by the council this February is seeking to fill with its proposed savings is £19.6 million.
This is a difference between now and before the election of £3.6 million.
So if you want to argue that the coalition government is imposing harsh cuts on the council you can in reality only claim that they are responsible for that extra £3.6 million. Now this is still a lot of money, but the truth is that whoever had won the last election the council would still have to find the vast majority of the current required savings. The reality is that the council would have to make severe cuts even under a Labour government.
To be fair to the Labour administration they are finding a lot of it by cutting back office functions and administration. I would argue for a far more radical restructuring of how the council does things myself, but the savings programme includes some long overdue efficiency in council bureaucracy. Although Labour wouldn’t admit it, a task made easier by the coalition government’s decision to drastically cut back on the form filing and box ticking that central government requires of local government.
However, it inevitably includes some significant cuts to public services. For example there is a £58,000 cut to the part of the council that carries out food premises inspections, a £116,000 cut to footpath repairs, the closure of the noise nuisance patrol service, the scrapping of the street warden scheme, the closure of The Mount elderly persons home, and changes to home care and day care provision. They did do a u-turn under pressure and changed their minds about a significant cut to street cleaning but that service still has to find £100,000.
In the council meeting I asked Labour’s finance spokesperson, Cllr Robin Harris, about the impact that the budget would have on the youth and community development services. His answer lacked details and I came away still uncertain about how precisely these services will be effected. He did promise that no community centre will close or have its hours reduced. So how they are going to find the £140,000 saving this year and the £230,000 next year as part of the “community development strategic budget review” remains a mystery. As to the youth service, we do know that the Wellbeck Youth Centre will close and that availability of personal advisors for young people is to be reduced.
But what the Labour party were even more reluctant to talk about was the overall scale of the problem. The savings the council has to find not just in this budget but over the next four years. For the financial year 2012 to 2013 the council needs to find further savings of £15.2 million. The budget that we have just passed contains an already identified £4.2 million of savings that will contribute to that.
That leaves a gap of £11 million still to find.
I don’t know whether the Labour administration at the Town Hall have worked out where those savings will come from or not, but I do know that they are not telling anyone. A cynic might say that they want to keep quiet about it until after this year’s local elections. I think a part of the answers is that they haven’t got a clue about how they are going to achieve it.
What worries me most is that the best way to find that £11 million, while having as little impact as possible on front-line services, is to start making decisions about how it is to be done now. That way more radical plans can be developed and can have time to be implemented. I see little evidence that those decisions are being made. Again, Labour’s tactic is to delay these hard choices until after the local elections.