So we come around to budget time again, in Southend-on-Sea, and it doesn’t make for exactly pleasant reading for those who don’t want to see the town cut away to nothing.
The Conservative government, in its wisdom, has decided that the Borough of Southend-on-Sea has £8.43m too much in funding, and so has issued another 28% cut to the council’s funding. In the national interest, we are told, but there’s a dishonesty at its core. The Treasury keeps loading the tough decisions onto councils to cover up the incompetence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, heading fast towards the point where vital services will become unsustainable.
In the light of all this, then, the budget constructed by the joint administration in Southend is a work of wonder, with services preserved and serious pain avoided. And having seen them utterly fail to scrutinise it at the three scrutiny committees last week, I can only presume that the Conservatives agree.
The headline figure is that council tax will be going up by 3.9%. 1.9% of this is the usual increase that the Council can make (And 1.9% because at 2% a referendum has to be held, which is expensive and further eats into the Council’s spending power, so defeating the point -Ed). The other 2% is a concession by the government to allow us to fund adult social services.
Of course, the 2% permitted doesn’t cover the money cut, but that figures, doesn’t it?
But as I said, I think that the administration have done an excellent job here. It’s not perfect, and if there were a way around it I would really rather not be raising council tax. But the Council has responsibilities to provide services, and those services are being maintained.
And in the three scrutiny meetings specifically to hold the budget to account, there might as well not have been an opposition. The Conservatives seemed less interested in the budget than spending 40 minutes discussing bollards. Maybe they have something up their sleeves for full council, but I’m genuinely not sure.
I again commend the job of the cabinet, particularly Cllrs Gilbert (LAB – Victoria), Norman (LAB – Victoria) and Jones (LAB – Kursaal), in crafting a budget which protects vital services for the vulnerable whilst dodging some of the pain we are seeing elsewhere. The question, though, is how much further can be cut before Tory policy in Westminster forces us to sacrifice some vital part of council services on which people depend?