Tonight, Southend Borough Council will debate the first budget of the joint administration. Or, to put it another way, the first Southend budget in fourteen years not to have been written by the Conservative Party.
I’ve made my own thoughts on the budget known, but as of 6am yesterday morning (Who makes announcements at 6am? That time of day is for repeatedly hitting snooze on the alarm, and eventually forcing yourself out of bed -Ed) Conservative councillor James Courtenay has made known his party’s.
And they’re fairly…weak.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that they’re trying. But one would think for the party which actually set the budget for nearly a decade and a half, and which has thrown quite so many hissy fits since it lost power over how others are doing it wrong, they might have something more solid to contribute.
Tory amendment #1 – Council Tax
So this was always going to be the headliner. The budget includes the proposal to raise council tax by 1.95%, which amounts to about £2 extra a month on the average property. This money, bear in mind, is going to keep libraries staffed, keep children’s centres open, and save Priory House from closure. The Tories were going to do none of this, and still raise your council tax by only 33p a month less.
Now, though, they’ve changed their tune and are all about freezing council tax. In part, they’re going to pay for this with Eric Pickles’ council tax bribe. But this central government cash is only good for the equivalent of a 1.0% rise, so they’re nearly £0.5m short.
They reckon they can get £250,000 of it from not hiring people, which after four years of austerity already is going to impact on the efficiency of council services as natural wastage stretches the work force beyond capacity. Another £200,000 comes from “Senior Management Team Restructure”. Which sounds, to this blogger, like sacking a corporate director. It will also cost them money in the short term, as they’ll have to pay redundancy payments. So that’s £100,000 out of reserves. Err…
Now, they’ve marked down to save £10,000 by cutting the number of cabinet posts from seven, at present, to six. I’ve no material objection to this, but it feels a bit ironic given that when the Tories were in power they had eight at the top table — and even nine at one point. Another £10,000 is from “Catering hospitality”; so if you turn up to council committee meetings, you won’t get a free cup of coffee. So maybe bring your own caffeine tablets?
And the final £27,000 will come from reserves.
The trouble is, each year that Eric Pickles’ bribe is taken mounts up the problems further down the line. If we take it this year, then it would mean either a bigger rise or a deeper cuts next year. All for the sake of £2 a month.
Tory amendment #2 – Parking Charges
This, to be honest, is a contentious one. And I’m not keen on raising charges myself. The problem, really, is that Southend has £11m of cuts from the Tory government, and needs to plug the gap.
The way that the Tories would do this is by taking £245,000 from reserves. £244k of this is from the “Revenue Support Grant”, which is technically part of reserves, but was actually money intended to cover grave social need (domestic violence, etc). I’m not sure spending it on parking charges instead is really the smartest of policies.
Amendment #3 – Bins
We’re past the substantive elements now, and onto the fringe issues. Bins. Some of the litter bins across the borough have been marked for removal. My understanding is that these are the least used bins in the borough, though I’m not desperately keen on the removal of any bins.
The Tories would fund this with another £20,000 from reserves to pay for them to stay.
Amendment #4 – Textile recycling
How often do you use those white bin sacks, for recycling of textiles? Odds are not very often. These haven’t been widely used, but the Tories would raid another £12,000 from reserves to save them. Except, my understanding is that they aren’t being scrapped, not exactly.
James Courtenay’s description of this amendment is to:
“Maintain the town’s clothes recycling service (otherwise they will just go into landfill sites via our black bags)“
Now that’s just not true. My understanding is that although the bags will no longer be provided, there will still be kerbside collection for recycling of textiles (fabrics, clothes to you and me). They will not have to go into black bags.
So what this amendment actually is, is the Tories raiding £12k of reserves in order to give everyone free white sacks that they’ll rarely if ever use.
Amendment #5 – Pier Charges
I love the pier. As a non-native to Southend (yes, I’m one of these filthy, scrounging immigrants that you hear about), it’s one of my favourite things about the town. And 14 years of Tory administration has left it in a pretty poor state of disrepair. So the charges for the use of the pier will go up. It’s not ideal, but it will fund repairs.
The Tory alternative, to fit a theme, is another £12,000 out of reserves, to freeze the charges.
I start by saying I have no objection to dipping into reserves. Not where it makes sense, not where it offers some value for residents of Southend.
The problem, then, with the Tories’ plugging every gap, every cut with money from reserves, is that the reserves are finite. If we use them this year, then next year we either have to hike taxes even higher, or cut services even more deeply.
The Conservative proposals would put at risk, next year, every children’s centre, every library, every care home that we have worked so hard to save.
And then there’s the hypocrisy element. The Tories have been scathing in their criticism of any use of the reserves, which the joint administration has used to protect the vulnerable — such as by saving Priory House care home.
Here is former Tory councillor Tony Cox:
“Less than a week in, are the new administration preparing to raid the rainy day reserves already?“
And here is former Tory council leader Nigel Holdcroft on the joint administration’s use of reserves:
“So when is a saving not a saving? – when you take it out of reserves. I am not quite sure what “smoothing” means in this context but the reality is that they have failed to meet the budget gap (even with an increase in council tax and car parking charges) and are therefore raiding reserves to cover the balance.
“Not only is this eroding the level of reserves which should be available for emergencies – which are always possible in areas such as social care – but how are the reserves to be replenished over the next 2 years when further and additional savings will need to be delivered?“
So how much extra use of reserves do the Tory amendments include? An extra £416,000.
Southend Conservatives: out of power; out of touch; out of ideas.