Cornwall Council sets its draft budget

The briefing on the draft – and yes it is only a draft – budget took place yesterday. This was the first chance for the wider membership of Cornwall Council to see the proposals for the 2014/15 budget. The message from the briefing is stark. As the council has to make further savings of £23.9m on top of the already agreed £19m.

Much of the detail discussed yesterday is confidential and as yet cannot be publicity released. However, the main proposal for setting the budget is a 1.97% rise in Council Tax. This is the maximum the council is allowed to raise. To put this into pounds shillings and pence, this equates to roughly £23.70 per year on a Band D property.

No one likes to raise Council Tax, but sometimes it has to be done to maintain services you and I enjoy. However, with the stinging cuts and reduction of grant funding, this small raise will not be enough to save everything the council currently provides.

If the council wished to raise Council Tax over the 2% threshold, the council would be required to hold a referendum. Holding a referendum is not cheap either, and if happened would cost more than £500,000. There is a further complication of if the council was to set a council over the threshold, bills would be sent out in the higher figure, but if the referendum was lost, new bills would have to be sent out with the lower under threshold figure. This sounds utterly mad, but that is the rules.

In the coming months there will be more discussion, debates and meetings on the budget. With the final decision made by the full council in February 2014.

The Start of Cornwall Council’s Budget Process

On Monday 2nd September will see the start of the formal process of Cornwall Council’s Budget with a briefing for Councillors. The previous four years have been very painful and have seen huge reductions in the Council’s provision. For those who think we are out of the pain, I am sorry to tell you there is yet more pain to come.

The Council is looking to make a further £24m in savings for the period of 2014/15 just to balance the books. This is part of a total saving of £196m by 2019. This figure is a very big ouch. It also has me very worried on how we as a Council are going to meet these savings. As during the last four years the so called ‘fat’ has been trimmed to nothing. And back office function have been reduced to a point there is no real room for more trimming.

Now it is the turn of Councillors via the various Portfolio Advisory Committees (PAC) to look in-depth on the budget. Staff have been asked for their views too. As have the public, who are being asked to turn up and take part in the various public meetings that have been scheduled for September.

Be under no illusions, the forthcoming budget will be tough, but the following years are going to be very painful indeed. Let’s hope the Government sees the damage it is causing in reducing the funding to council’s before it is too late.

A week of Budget Scrutiny and recommendations

Last week, the various Scrutiny Committees of Cornwall Council had the chance to challenge and make additional recommendation on the Cabinets draft proposals for the 2013/14 Budget. In these draft proposals the recommendation is for a 1.97% increase in Council Tax.

I attended and took part ( I can only vote in the Children’s OSC) in all of the meeting as it gives you a greater understanding on all aspects of the Budget before the full council meeting where the entire membership votes on the budget. Furthermore, it was good to see the various committees really questioning the Budget, Officers and Cabinet Member behind the draft. Believe me, it is not an easy position to be in, as the choices and recommendations made will affect people. The draft Budget can be found HERE.

This is a summary of the recommendations from the various Scrutiny Committees:

Health and Adults OSC:

  • The Committee’s disappointment be noted in respect of the removal of the £4m uplift in the 2014/15 budget.
  • Cabinet should lobby central government for fairer funding formulations relating to the grants received by Cornwall

Children’s, Education and Families OSC:

  • The Committee’s strong concerns in respect of the cost of transport to this service and the way it is delivered and managed be noted.
  • The Committee’s concerns be noted in respect of the proposed saving relating to school based redundancy costs being funded from the dedicated schools grant, as it is considered that this could disproportionately affect some schools.
  • The Committee’s strong objection to the potential additional emergency saving of the removal of the Post 16 Transport Subsidy be noted.

Communities OSC:

  • Not to make the proposed changes to the Community Chest Budget and to fund this from budgets used to fund the Royal Cornwall Show and other events including Cornwall in Bloom and the Du Maurier Festival (Fowey Music and Dance Festival), the final details to be worked up by the Assistant Chief Executive.
  • To reduce the bureaucracy of the Community Chest Grant Process.
  • To support the licensing of all Houses in Multiple Occupation giving extra protection for vulnerable residents and creating an extra income stream.
  • To keep the staffing level of Environmental Health Officers under review.
  • That Members should be involved in any proposals for community libraries.
  • A review of the performance of all Leisure facilities be undertaken by the new Council.

Environment & Economy OSC:

  • Mandatory Planning Training for all Members of the Council, with this training also offered to Town and Parish Councils.
  • The costs associated with the planning enforcement of listed buildings and conservation areas.
  • Costs being recovered from planning applicants who choose to withdraw applications in their final stages.
  • If and when the supported bus network is prioritised, it be ensured that those areas with already restricted services, particularly rural areas, be given high priority.
  • Beach maintenance and cleansing be prioritised to give greatest importance to those where blue flags may be lost, resulting in an associated loss in income.
  • Any shortfalls in income from the parking service should not be met by the highways maintenance budget and investigations should be undertaken into other possible budgets.

Corporate Resources OSC:

  • The Leader considers as a matter of urgency when the Final Report of the Business Rates Informal Working Group may be added to the Cabinet’s agenda and that current recipients of Discretionary Rate Relief be written to at the earliest possible opportunity.

These recommendations from the Scrutiny Committees will now go back to Cabinet, who then will either take on the additional points and include them into the draft Budget, or ignore them. It will then be up to the Full Council to ratify the d(r)aft, make further changes only if they are approved by finance, or vote against it. If the council does vote against it by a majority, then the 151 Officer (Head of Finance) has the power to set the Budget without the council having a say.


Two Days of Budget Scrutiny or State of the Union Addresses?

For the last two days I have been stuck in County Hall scrutinising the proposed budget for 2012/13 as set by Cabinet. I wish I could say it was a worthwhile experience, but it was not. Scrutinising is mean to, well, Scrutinise. It is not meant to be a State of the Union address on how good we are, and what we have achieved in the last year. (You can see for yourself with the archive web cast).

For the last two days this State of the Union has been presented by the various corporate heads, and portfolio holders. This has left little time (one hour per scrutiny committee) to question the budget detail. Spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations are all well and good, but people want to know what these figures on an accountants spreadsheet mean in reality, ie. what is going to shut or stop being provided.

Last year during the process there was no mention of cuts to concessionary fares, or the withdrawing of funding for 114 toilets. My worry is what lies behind the figures. The question is what else is on the cards? Open spaces? What other non-statutory but important functions will be cast adrift? This really has me worried. As they say, the ‘devil is in the detail’. We know the devil is there, we just can see him (or her).

No one should be under any misunderstanding that finance is tough in the whole country, and more importantly the world. Governments, Local Authorities, public and private sectors are facing huge budget pressures. This will result in reductions. The point is what reductions are acceptable (to a point), and what are no go areas.

From what I can see the proposed Cornwall Council budget is full of numbers, but lacks detailed answers to what will be cut/reduced/off-loaded?

I summed the budget up at yesterday when Andrew Long asked me what was for lunch.

Andrew Long: “What for lunch”?
Me: “Sandwiches”
Andrew Long: “What’s in the sandwiches”
Me: “You don’t need to know what’s in them as they are like the budget. You just need to know they are sandwiches”
Andrew Long: “nothing new there then”

The sandwich debate pretty well summed up the two days.