Sunday, 27 January 2013

Budget scrutiny?

This week sees the formal scrutiny of our draft budget reach it's busiest time. Whilst I encourage members of all groups to raise their suggestions or queries at any point in the process this is the week when the budget is formally considered by the Council's three scrutiny committees (Children & Lifelong Learning, Adult Social Care & Culture and Economic & Enviromental) on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings with the opportunity for business to raise queries on Thursday evening at the Business Ratepayers Consultative Forum. It make it a busy week for me with this run of evening meetings but I wait with anticipation as to the areas which are giving members most concern and whether they raise any alternative proposals. Watch this space!

More culture

Had another spot of culture this weekend with a trip to London to see the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy and the English National Opera's version of The Mikardo. Since a friend gave us a gift of becoming friends of the RA for a year we have become regular visitors and the quality of exhibitions is first rate and well worth a visit being a short stroll along Picadilly from Eros. The Mikardo was also great - about the closest to pure opera that I can manage although the performance was not helped by a young Spanish girl next to me who felt it necessary to spend most of the first quarter messaging on her blackberry until asked to stop. Fortunately she did not reappear after the interval but it does make you wonder why anyone would want to buy some decent( and expensive) West End seats and spend the whole time texting twittering or whatever, with little consideration for this around her.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Black sack challenge

One of the budget proposals which has gained some attention over the last few days is the suggestion that we should stop supplying free black rubbish sacks to all residents delivering a saving of about £50K. It will be interesting to see how the debate plays out over the next few weeks. The reality is that for those who embrace recycling and utilise the pink sacks and food caddies the black sack rubbish is very limited. Unfortunately after some good progress on driving up recycling rates it is proving difficult to take the next step. Recycling is important not only to help save the planet but also because local authorities face major financial penalties if we are unable to reduce the levels of land fill. Perhaps the lack of free black sacks will encourage reluctant recyclers to consider the proper use of pink sacks. in addition to this there is a saving and I have to wonder whether it is a good use of increasingly stretched resources to fund free sacks for all when the cost from local stores is minimal and certainly affordable for the vast majority of residents. I would rather spend precious resources on maintaining weekly collections.

Abuse and insults - any every day story of local government

There is an interesting article in today's Independent by Philip Hensher who last week commented on the Government's assessment for incapacity benefit. He was subsequently shocked by the public reaction which included aggressive abuse and personal threats. He referred to comments by Professor Mary Beard who was also forced to endure disgusting online abuse following an appearance on Question Time. What slightly surprised me was their shock at this behaviour. It is an unfortunate truth that regular and offensive abuse and appalling allegations about improper motivation are a regular occurrence for me as a Council Leader and I am not alone. Particularly on controversial issues such as the airport or the Fair Havens planning application there is a significant minority who feel entitled to fire unpleasant and aggressive accusations at local councillors irrelevant of whether there is any justification or factual basis. I think to a degree it is a product of modern electronic communications. People will knock out an inappropriate e mail or website comment and hit the send button without giving thought as to what they are saying, hiding behind the anonymity which a computer can provide. It is so much harder for comments to be made face to face, on the telephone or with the delay inevitable in writing and sending a letter. I suppose what is even worse is that many of us accept it as an unavoidable and inevitable aspect of public office.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The age of inexperience!

Watching the Andrew Marr show this morning Nigel Farage made the point that of the three main party leaders none of them had ever had a "proper job". It is interesting that all the main parties seem to be encouraging the selection of an ever younger slate of candidates who no doubt they feel will appeal to the elusive younger voters and be better suited to this media friendly age. It also reflects the apparent increase in the numbers of "professional politicians" who seem to move from school to university to some political advisor type of role before being selected for, and subsequently elected as a members of parliament. Of course with all generalisations of this kind there are many examples of exceptions to the rule. It is interesting that this apparent trend in selection approach has not as yet improved the public view as to the merit of our elected representatives. I can understand why Mr Farage feels that this is a stance which may appeal to the electorate many of whom may well feel that members of parliament who have experienced more experience of life away from Westminster, running their own business or experiencing first hand the delivery of services to the public are better placed to serve in the House of Commons. I suppose like all things the best option is a Mix of the two extremes and those in between the two. The question is whether the main parties are moving too much away from such a mix.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Council Tax Subsidy

In the draft budget proposals we have recently published for 2013/14 (see below) we have indicated our intention to reject the Government offer of a 1 year council tax subsidy. The effect of the subsidy would be to increase our funding from the Government by the equivalent of a 1% council tax increase. It is conditional on an agreement to make no further council tax increase for the coming year. This is the third year that a subsidy has been on offer but each year the terms of the proposal have worsened. 2 years ago the subsidy was offered for the remainder of the current government spending review period, last year whilst only a 1 year subsidy it was for 2%. Each year we have spent considerable time reflecting on whether the subsidy should be accepted and for the last 2 years we have done so. This has been in the recognition that it has given something of a double whammy - as the subsidies reach the end of their respective terms this means that the level of saving that has to be found at that point increases by the amount of the subsidy. In addition the subsidies are not included in the Council's base budget which means that when council tax is raised in the future the rise is based on  a % of a lower base generating less additional income. This effect has to be balanced against the tough times many of our residents are facing and our wish to keep council tax payments as low as possible. This year we have formed the view that the balance has changed and the need to protect services is greater. We are currently sugesting a council tax increase of 1.75% (38p per week to a band D property) and it will be interesting to see where we have reached by the time the budget is agreed by Council.

Budget Challenge

We have just published draft proposals for the budget for 2013/2014 which need to deliver revenue savings of £10.5M to achieve a balanced net budget of £139M for the coming year. It will be interesting to see how this process works in circumstances whee the Administration does not have an overall majority. In formulating our proposals we have taken account of the views of members from all groups but it is of course a very different thing to expresss support for unpopular measures behind closed doors as against accepting accountability for the measures to the general public. In previous years our opposition groups have been able to criticise our plans and economies without identifying their counter proposals or putting forward their alternative budgets. This year it is different as collectively they have the power to vote down any specific proposal but subject to identifying a compensating cut. I wait with interest how they react to this or will we see the usual rush to avoid any unpopular move but fail to suggest an alternative. The draft budget will go to cabinet on Tuesday for approval and will then be subject to scrutiny and review by other members, businesses and the public. The draft will be reviewed by cabinet before being referred to full council at the end of February who have the ultimate power and responsibility to set a balanced budget for the coming year.I will be updating this blog as we progress.