Tonight is the council meeting which will agree the budget for next year. The Conservative group have put forward a 1% cut in Council Tax at a cost of approximately £1.4 million. That may sound a great deal but it works out at around £10 per household per year or around 20p a week. This come at a price however. To give back 20p a week to each household the council is cutting services to the elderly, adults with learning difficulties and children's services. In addition, charges for most council services are rising.
The council seem to judge the appropriateness of their cuts to services by how many people agree with them. If we followed that through to its natural conclusion, the majority would vote for minimal or no council tax but does that make it right that the elderly or adults with learning disabilities get screwed at the same time? Of course not but this council is determined to win votes and therefore cuts to services in return for cuts to the council tax are what we will get.
At tonight's meeting we will also hear three alternative budgets, from Labour, Liberal Democrats and from Brian Coleman. Having read through the details, I have to say that I am disappointed that Labour have chosen to go along with the Council Tax cuts. It is not surprising, I suppose, given that any suggestion they would either freeze or increase Council Tax would be pounced on by the Conservatives, but that doesn't make it right. The Liberal Democrats have proposed a council tax freeze (as opposed to a cut), freeing up £1.4 million to spend on other services and reduce the impact of proposed cuts to children's services. I also like their proposal to delete the political assistants posts for the Labour and Conservative groups, saving £83,000 a year. I have always found it a contradiction that a council that has gone out of its way to eliminate paid union representatives seems quite content for us to pay for its political assistants. In some ways the Liberal Democrats can afford to be more radical in their proposals as they only hold one ward, Childs Hill, and with two of their three councillors retiring (the Palmers) the likelihood of their proposals coming to fruition are limited - but I admire Cllr Jack Cohen for at least making the suggestion.
Looking briefly at Brian Coleman's proposals, one has to wonder what planet he is on. He proposes a further 2% cut in council tax costing £2.86 million. To pay for this he wants those in receipt of benefit to pay 20% towards their council tax (known as Council tax Support or CTS) instead of 8.5% which is currently required. That would raise £1.76 million although he also includes a provision of £306k for bad debt against this increase which suggests he is setting up the poorest to fail and be exposed to court action and/or the bailiffs (owned by Capita). A note from officers says that he could not increase CTS this year because it has missed the deadline for setting CTS but it gives you an indication of his priorities. Brian also proposes reversing the Council's policy to increase the hourly rate of the lowest paid council employees to the London Living Wage of £8.80 per hour. Keeping people in poverty seems to be a theme here. He also wants to turn off street lights on minor road between midnight and 5 am. Given the council, of which he was a member, spent £27 million on the street lighting PFI to improve lighting levels it does seem somewhat ironic he now wants to turn them off at night. I'm afraid I do have to go along with one of Brian's proposals not mentioned by either of the opposition parties and that is the elimination of the CEO post saving approximately £260k per annum. Currently in Barnet we have both a Chief Executive and a Chief Operating Officer which, in my opinion, is one Chief too many.
Overall the budget proposals are disappointing and short-termist. They fail to address the demographic pressures which the borough is facing and which are set out in the budget report. This is all about the election in May and ensuring that the politicians keep their power and their allowances. Given that the council now have Capita providing most of the services, I would have taken the opportunity to slash the number of councillors to just one per ward saving around £650,000 in councillor allowances. I would have also focused much more on creating jobs in Barnet, stimulating business and benefiting from the proportion of Business Rates the council are now allowed to retain which in turn would allow more to be spent on those who most need the council's services. I would also make serious inroads into the consultancy and interims budget where the council are spending millions unnecessarily.
Let's see if this attempt to buy votes in May works but I hope for the sake of those most in need that it does not.