Last night was the council's budget setting meeting. Labour and the Lib Dems put forward their alternative budgets. Interestingly, Brian Coleman, as an independent councillor now has the freedom to submit his own alternative budget. He proposed sacking the Chief Executive and scrapping the Barnet First Magazine saving £333,000 per annum which Brian will give back to residents in the form of a £2.66 PER ANNUM cut in council tax - that's 5p a week. He also proposed to INCREASING PARKING CHARGES by 3% with the extra income invested in road repairs. Interestingly, he made a strong argument why the charges should go up which was that if you freeze them this year then after the election you have to push them up dramatically. Well Cllr Coleman, how come you believe that to be true for parking yet you refuse to accept it for the council tax because that is exactly what will happen after the next election - council tax will rise dramatically to make up for the shortfall created by five years of freezes.
Lib Dems and Labour both proposed cutting the number of people in the cabinet which will save between £52k and £87k per annum. Perhaps they should consider larger cuts to the number of councillors from 63 to 42. That would save over £200k per annum. Overall I found the alternatives disappointing. Very little has been done to address the massive cuts in children's services, the closure of day centres and nothing to address the increasing cost of adult social care as set out in the infamous 'Graph of Doom/Choices'.
Cllr Harper, made the point that the opposition must be in favour of the budget when tested at the Budget & Performance Scrutiny Committee. He talked about the "anodyne and ineffectual questioning by the opposition." sadly I suspect he is right. Currently in Barnet, the strongest opposition is coming from the community in the form of BAPS, bloggers and a few well informed residents none of whom receive a five figure allowance from the council.
Personally I think the budget needs a root and branch review. We need to go through a series of zero based budgeting exercises challenging how money is being spent and how money is being levied by external bodies. £15 million to fund Freedom Passes represents 9.6% of the money raised by Council tax and it is just taken without any challenge. £5.8 million has been paid to just one firm of consultants and according to the suppliers payments for 2011/12 the council spent £13.5 million on consulting fees. The Council also spent £7.7 million on agency and interim staff. They spent £1.4 million on grounds maintenance even though the council has its own green spaces team to manage parks and open spaces. £1.46 million is spent on transport hire charges - are we sure we are getting value for money, something I queried last year. We are spending £1.5 million on gas and electricity and £680,000 on telephones; are there any savings that could be made here?
That is £47 million of spending that seems to go through on the nod without detailed scrutiny and maybe somewhere where we can start to make some real savings. These are the sorts of topics that should be being voiced but never get discussed at the budget meetings and are not allowed to be discussed in residents forums.