Thursday, 4 November 2010

Tough times ......tough decisions

I've now been a District Councillor for 5 months, and it is clear as can be that Huntingdon District Council needs urgent action to address an alarming budget deficit. Last night, my Lib Dem colleague in Huntingdon East, Mike Shellens, put forward a motion for debate. In it he offered some suggestions as to ho the problems might be faced.

Despite some words of support from some Conservative members, others were, I am sad to say, quite dismissive of what Mike put forward. With a large majority in any event, the motion was defeated, although a few Conservatives did abstain - the closest, some might say, to getting them to vote in favour.

The meeting, as with MANY council meetings, was open to the public, and so, I publish now, the text of what Mike had to say:-

Members we find ourselves in unusually uncertain times:




Revenue from charges

This motion reflects concerns expressed by members of both parties as well as independent members on the Economic Panel that it is foolhardy to pin all our plans onto a single forecast outcome.

Instead, we should prepare, now, contingency plans against various outcomes identifying now what we would have to do when, to meet whatever the outcome is.

It may be that things get better:

Extra savings before we “Pass Go” next April, providing a buffer,

The government takes fright at the post VAT rise fall off in retailing

and the rise in the savings ratio heightened by the fear of unemployment

and starts old fashioned Keynsian pump-priming using Local Authorities to inject cash into the economy. Etc.

In that case, we do not want to be committed to the pain of putting into operation plans to yield savings of £9.5m by 2014/15 if all we need is £6m. We should not sell Pathfinder House and move to portacabins on Alconbury Airfield unless it is strictly necessary.

On the other hand a perfect storm of:

adverse floors and ceilings,

higher inflation driven by the falling £ and Vat,

resistance to increased charges,

a large number of Housing Benefit victims deciding to come and join relatives in Huntingdon,

and extra unfunded obligations passed down from central government

could lead to a much more serious situation requiring ever more drastic surgery.

In my experience drastic surgery needs time to be planned, a move to Alconbury would take at least two years to implement. So it would be no use ending up at the dawn of the last year thinking “If only we had started planning for this 3 years ago!”

We need to manage the situation rather than simply administer it. We need to be on the front foot.

During the course of this year we have heard numbers of £5m, £6m, £8m £9.6m and now £10m as the level of savings needed over the plan period to balance the books. What makes us think that the current figure is going to be the actual one? We need to provide for variations.

So we need a variety of plans now, keep them under review as life changes around us, but implement only as and when needed, but with plans already considered.

I have 10 quick suggestions as to what could go into this mix.

This afternoon’s presentation on Balancing the Budget included some suggestions as to areas for consideration. Some of them are duplicated in the following list. But as the copies were committed before that meeting I shall not try and edit out areas on both our lists.

1) Any future increase in members’ allowance should be restricted to the rate of inflation. So do away with the official arbiter to whom we pay I think £5k p.a.

2) Narrower margins and no space under paragraph headings on council papers – only £10k a year savings, but a visible sign that we are trying.

3) Last year we recommended that we councillors share in the pain and reduce all allowances by 10%. This was kicked into the long grass. I understand that Honourable Members opposite refused any increase this year. Many of the Lib Dems implemented a reduction of 10% in accordance with our previous budget proposals.

We should all be moved to that lower scale with effect from 1 April next year,

we should freeze Members’ Allowances until 2014 at the earliest,

we should cap travel expenses to 40p per mile.

4) Move from the Imbucon payroll system to the NJC scales. As I understand it, under the current regime, long lasting employees can migrate well outside the range for the job. What is done is done, but we should stop any more silliness.

5) Voluntary redundancy is a personal challenge both financially and emotionally. Compulsory redundancy can be much worse. Instead, give sections the choice of reduced hours until things get better, using compulsory redundancy only if there is insufficient take up. From the employer’s point of view, this has the merit of retaining the pool of expertise and can be selectively unwound as demand increases in specific areas. It would be necessary to protect pension entitlement and that may take some time to effect so a case for early exploration.

6) Look hard at ourselves. Cut the numbers of District Councillors to 35 from 52, probably not implementable until 2016, but cutting the Cabinet to 7 rather than 10, and 1 Scrutiny Committee rather than 3 could be done now and would bring with it savings on allowances, travel expenses, printing, and officer time.

7) Sub-let Pathfinder House as staff numbers decrease. We should invite other local authority bodies to make use of spare space in Pathfinder House. (e.g. Connexions and Locality Team).

8) Share council tax collection and other back office services with other District Councils. Surely we do not each need to maintain our own complex computer system. In many areas, like Call Centres, we have much to offer others.

9) Sale and lease back of Pathfinder House and other assets should be evaluated.

10) Save huge amounts of back office costs by going unitary with the County.

On the other side, Lib Dems believe that we should not cut grants to voluntary organisations where there is a risk that this will cause more expenditure for us and the rest of the public sector if we take away the highly geared voluntary support that most of them provide.

My final suggestion is that we recognise that what we are about to receive will not make us truly thankful. Residents will suffer deterioration in the level of service that they receive from the Council.

We should therefore provide that little bit of sugar to help the medicine go down. For the towns, I would suggest reversing the decision on the toilets, deeply unpopular and, anecdotally for Huntingdon, diverting shoppers away from the Town Centre.

For the villages the retention of the Customer Service Centres is likely to be welcomed by those, often the most vulnerable and impecunious, who really need our services and would find the trip in from Farcet or the Gransdens both physically and financially daunting.

Members, we would be happy to discuss these suggestions further as long as the approach was not finding 57 reasons for not doing them but rather “What do we need to do to make them happen?”