Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Leigh Times comment

I have always believed that the Leigh Times is an excellent publication and has for many years been an excellent link with residents to the west of the town. One of the pleasant challenges is the Political Comment column which appears in each edition and gives a range of local politicians and others the opportunity to use 800 words or so to get a specific point across to the public. The quality varies but politicians of all political colours often demonstrate a range of traits to include passion, humour and occasionally lunacy! The column is far too effective a communication tool to consider turning it down but I do know that at times, particularly during a politically quiet time, there can be a moments dread at coming up with something vaguely lucid and relevant. As Leader I am lucky in that I usually have recent initiatives to refer to and am also often fortunate to have a column offered at budget and other significant times. Sympathy for those less fortunate sprung to mind when seeing the latest edition with a comment column by Cllr Martin Terry, Leader of the Independent Party. He was clearly struggling until he fell back on his old favourites of zero based budgeting and borrowing levels. A couple of years ago Martin accepted during a public meeting that even after all his years on the council he still didn't understand local government finance and it entertains many across the chamber that he demonstrates this with such predictable regularity. His theme is that there is some way that investment and savings can be delivered without making any reductions in services and, if given the chance, the good old indies will demonstrate this by using policies which, based on his earlier admission, he does not understand. It is relevant to remind ourselves that by the time we reach April 2014, the end of my 7th year as Leader of the Council, we will have achieved yearly revenue savings totalling almost £61M to deliver a net annual budget which currently stands at just under £139M per annum. To put this in context if we were to reintroduce all this expenditure next April it would require a council tax increase of approximately 102%. If he really thinks that we have achieved this without going through every part of the council organisation with a tooth comb then I wonder what he has been doing during the last 7 budget debates. On borrowing it would be helpful if he mentioned the significant distinction between borrowing linked to the housing stock, which is ring fenced, and the remainder. More significantly in calculating local government funding the government has always included an allowance for the funding of capital borrowing realising that capital investment is essential. Previously this was separately identified but more recently has just been included in the general pot. A failure to use this funding would result in significant underinvestment which was the case before we got a proper hold of the capital programme a few years ago. The cost of borrowing is about 2% of the council's annual budget which is less than many other authorities and is "prudent, affordable and sustainable" to use the words of our Head of Finance (who is qualified and experienced in public funding). More to the point there has been no desire on Martin's part to speak out against the projects which have been partly or fully funded by borrowing and indeed there have been calls from the Indies to increase borrowing to spend on pet projects like the retention of the Old Hinguar school site. It is the same old game - scaremonger incorrectly on borrowing levels but fail to identify the investment schemes they oppose.

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