Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Basildon Borough Budget

It was Budget night last night at Basildon Council. My colleague Cllr. Phil Turner presented a balanced programme that cuts the Council Tax by 0.25%, maintains frontline services and invests in community facilities, while making the required savings to keep in line with the fall in government support. So, we are spening £300,000 this year on Hannakins Farm Community Centre, Pitsea Leisure Centre and Victoria Park. Who could possibly object? Well, step forward Basildon Labour Party.

Labour's plan was to take £2m from reserves and borrow £2m in order to avoid building on open space to fund the Sporting Village. This was in support of the Kent View Road campaign to prevent houses being built in their vicinity. So, we have the basic principle of spending very large amounts of money in order to satisfy a relatively small resident's group. The Council's reserves and debt levels would be compromised so that Labour can jump on a bandwagon. Except that doesn't happen because they know that those sensible Tories will vote it down.

Of course, their proposal was technically flawed. They got the sum required to meet their stated objectives wrong; it's £8m not £4m. The failed to take the loss of income to the Council from the reserves they spent, which are currently invested. Worst of all, they programmed in a further £150,000 of savings without realising that this almost certainly equated to redundancies. Oh did their little faces fall when that was explained to them. What a shambles.

Their next wheeze was to cancel our weekend free car-parking in order to fund a free music festival that we have cut. They claimed that this £100,000 initiative had failed. Well, not according to the local Chambers of Commerce and the Essex FSB it hasn't, but Labour didn't bother to talk to them. Another shambles.

Sometimes I wish for a better opposition. Sometimes.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear Stephen, another misrepresentation. There were several pieces of land included in the Labour amendment - then you added one that the Labour group did not mention. So Labour's did add up to £4m not £8m and it wasn't just one small group of residents, but several large groups of residents that use that land for sport and recreational purposes - although the administration at the council pretend they don't. Furthermore the council's reserves wouldn't be compromised as the Labour group made clear, because they had asked the Finance Director. And what might affect the debt position of the council is building a great big development in the middle of the park without getting the finances sorted out first. A gaffe made by your administration that this budget is intended to sort out.

Unfortuantely, you will never know Labours argument for objecting to the car parking scheme as one of the administration councillors decided that the administration didn't want to defend it. The debate was stopped after two speakers. However, the paper prepared by your colleague, Cllr. Phil Turner, said about Wickford that a market was needed: "Funds will also be used to promote
Wickford Town Centre as a shopping destination bringing it in line with other areas of the
Borough where investment in free car parking has taken off". So it hadn't taken of in Wickford eh? By all accounts it isn't really needed in Billericay, and most of the residents in Basildon are baffled by the claim for "free" car parking as they have to pay!

So now we're down to £150k of "further savings", which the administration group calculated as three or four posts. In the papers for the budget there is a figure of efficiencies at £2.3m for 2011/12 although the paper is a bit coy about what proportion of that is identified already. On your calculations of £150k equalling three or four redundancies, the "efficiencies" in the budget mean that the council plans between 45 and 62 redundancies. I wonder if, in your words at the meeting, you have shared this with the unions... I guess not.

The government have left Basildon in a pretty poor position, but it is not politically expedient for you to say so. And your council tax cut (54p per resident per year - don't spend it all at once folks!) is prompted by political leaflets (I bet the cut is trumpeted, but the 54p will be quietly forgotten). This is a budget to do your best to prevent the collapse of your vote in May.

Good Luck!

Steve Horgan said...

The Labour Group has been campaigning return the land in the South of Gloucester Park to open space. That would cost the Council at least another £4m. That it wasn't mentioned in the amendment was just a way of ducking the cost of what is Basildon Labour Party policy.

The point about compromising the reserves is that if you spend a large chunk of your spare cash each time this sort of issue crops up then you will very quickly run out of reserves. This is pretty much what has happened the last two times Labour ran the Council. Reserves were spent on issues that at most affected part of a ward and very soon the Council was down to the auditor's minimum.

We have absolutely talked to the Unions about potential redundancies. The Council would be failing in its duty as an employer if it hadn't. In fact the Union representative has spoken at Cabinet regarding potential redundancies. The only people proposing redundancies who haven't spoken to the UNISON representative is Basildon Labour party.

As for the car parking thing, the universal view was that any such proposal should have been made with the other budget changes and that having two unrelated amendments to the same agenda item was just game-playing. Well, we don't have to play.

Anonymous said...

So just let me get this right... running down the reserves is a denuding the council's assets, but selling off public land that people use for recreation isn't? Just as you can only spend the reserves once, you can only sell tha land once. We are using the land, but the reserves are just sitting in your bank account.

The "universal view was that any such proposal should have been made with the other budget changes" was it? Like your other contributor, I think this is a misrepresentation. Labour certainly didn't think that, the Liberals voted for both, so presumably they didn't either and the council staff helped to draft the amendments so they thought it was alright too. So a "universal view" in your opinion is what the Tories think. Well, this is why you are selling the land anyway because only you have the "universal view" and you won't listen to residents like me.

As the old adage goes "power corrupts... "

Anonymous said...

Wooo! Anonymous was obviously there... so was I. No mention of how those reserves were built. Labour built the Town Hall and mortgaged it to pay for it. The Tories said how terrible it was - they would rather the council was left running from tumbledown demountables (ought to have been called self-disassembles). The 25 year mortgage was paid off shortly after the Tories took over.

Did anyone notice our council tax fall as the £2 million per year bill no longer needed to be paid? No, neither did I. Did anyone notice a sudden improvement in services - or of council house stock? No, not that either. I wonder where it went? Straight into the back pocket of the council to be called "contingency reserve".

This is our money that the self-righteous Tories are playing with. 0.25% reduction ... don't make me laugh, it should be 100 times more than that.

Where is our money????

Steve Horgan said...

To Anonymous #1, there is a huge difference between liquid reserves and land assets. Hint, such things are separately dealt with on a balance sheet. In fact, suggesting the two are the same thing is probably one of the few things that would make a roomful of accountants burst our laughing.

As for the 'power corrupts' thing. Let us be very clear. If you have any evidence of corruption at Basildon Borough Council then you should be reporting them to the police, not posting accusations anonymously on a website. If you don't, and I know you don't, then you are simply engaging in abuse against people whose only crime is not to agree with you. Very grown up.

To Anonymous #2. The funding to build the Towngate and the Council Offices was not a mortgage, I wish it had been. It was in fact a deferred purchase, a financial instrument that was subsequently made illegal for local government because it was a licence to print money for the lender at the expense of local taxpayers. The reason why there wasn't a sudden surge in services or cuts in the Council Tax when the deferred purchase is because, unlike the last Labour administration in Basildon, the Conservative administration engages in financial planning not just for the next year but for 3-5 years ahead. So, we knew the payoff was coming and factored it in to keep the Council tax under control and to maintain services for a number of years around that actual last payment. It's the way competent public and private-sector organisations actually work.