Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Leigh Times

I have been given the chance to pen a comment article on the budget ahead of tomorrow's budget debate. For those who do not receive the Leigh Times this is what it says: Shortly after 6.30 pm on Thursday 27th February Southend Council will debate and then agree a budget for 2014/15. It is an important decision for residents and businesses across the Town as it will confirm how in excess of £500M will be spent over the coming 12 months to include £30M on council housing, £143M for our schools, £132M for capital projects over the next 3 years, and a gross revenue budget of approximately £400M to cover the cost of council services to include adult social care, road maintenance, street lighting, refuse collecting and disposal, street cleaning, flood defences, maintenance of our parks and beaches, fostering and adoption, benefits, planning enforcement and control, regeneration and so on. It is the first time our budget debate will have been broadcast live over the internet and will also be available to view later either in whole or in part giving all those interested the opportunity to hear firsthand the aspirations and priorities of the 4 parties represented in the council chamber. It will also be my 7th and last budget as Leader of the council. Over the last 8 years my Conservative colleagues and I have driven up service levels and resident satisfaction whilst also achieving significant budget savings. To include this year’s proposals we will have delivered £79.05M of annual revenue savings. If we had not done so we would be spending an extra £79M of council tax payers money this year and next year and on into the future and if we wanted to reinstate those savings we would need a council tax rise of 129.6% to do so! And yet even now we are able to bring forward a budget which does not decimate our core services and will have little or any adverse effect on our residents, but does include new investment in our priority areas such as school improvement, attracting economic investment and regeneration and replacing our street lights with LED to ensure that in Southend our lights remain on overnight. This is only possible because of the good housekeeping skills which we have demonstrated over recent years. The Conservative Administration’s proposals were released back in January and have been subject to scrutiny by the members of the other parties, residents and businesses. Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive save for the Independent party’s criticism of borrowing levels. This stance continues to surprise me as the Independents have not voted against any significant schemes dependent on borrowing over the last few years and indeed Cllr Woodley entered into an agreement 2 years ago guaranteeing to support our budget proposals. The reality is that council funding is based on the assumption and expectation that councils will fund an element of their capital expenditure by borrowing and as a result we have available to us the Public Works Loan Board which provides advantageous interest rates to local authorities. The level of borrowing which has been accumulated in this town is best described as average when compared to similar authorities across the county. The Council’s expert Head of Finance regards it as prudent affordable and sustainable, a view supported by our professional external auditors. Excluding housing borrowing which is related primarily to the decision some years ago to transfer central government housing debt to local government and which is payable from council house rents and not council tax, our borrowing by the end of this year will amount to £172M. This will result in repayments during the current year of £13M of which £6M is the repayment of capital and only £7M interest. It is payable from a gross revenue budget of £400M so is equivalent to less than 1.8% of our relevant income or to put it in simple terms it is like a family on an income of £30K per annum having a mortgage liability of £45 per month. To reject a programme of controlled and reasonable borrowing in an authority such as ours which has limited income generating assets, would mean a lack of investment in roads, council buildings, ICT and other assets as well as leaving us unable to take advantage of match funding from central government, Europe and elsewhere. In real terms it would mean that a range of projects such as the new Belfairs School, the Belfairs Adult Community College, enhanced spending on road repairs and street light replacement, the renovation of public toilets, the new Garons swimming and diving pool, the new central library, the funding of Childrens Sure start Centres, the reinstatement of the Pier head and Royal Pavillion, the cliff stabilisation work in central Southend, the reequipping of the crematorium and many more would not have been carried out. If other parties are opposed to our borrowing level than I challenge them to indicate what projects they would not have implemented and what the resulting interest saving would be rather than the simplistic scaremongering that we are seeing at present? But don’t take my word for it – why not see for yourself by visiting on 27th February or afterwards. Hear the debate first hand and reach your own conclusion.

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