Friday 9 February 2018

You get what you pay for - should Barnet residents pay more?

Next Tuesday the all powerful Policy & Resources Committee will assess whether to increase Council Tax or not. There is a recommendation that they should add a 3% social care precept. Social care is in crisis, not just in Barnet, but throughout the UK so this makes sense. However, this money is ring fenced and the council are obliged to prove it has not been used for other purposes.

The Council are also allowed to increase Council tax by a further 2.99% without having to hold a local referendum but the recommendation is that this should be frozen. This follows a pattern with Barnet having frozen or cut Council tax every year since 2010. In 2016/17 they did include a 1.7% social care precept but this mirrored a 1.7% reduction due to the Olympic levy coming to an end - so no overall net increase.

The problem we have is that Barnet have been using reserves to make up some of the shortfall and they are getting to a point where they will reach the minimum threshold a local authority is required to hold. Barnet are proud that they have made real term cuts to council tax of 20% but that has a very significant cost in terms of the reduction of services. Most departments are being required to cut their budgets, including services like Children's and Adults. For details of all of the budget cuts you can read them here with a summary below.

Currently Barnet is being propped up by a central government grant called New Homes Bonus which is linked to the number of new homes are built. This year it is roughly £10 million so you can see why Barnet is so keen to push through every new housing development. However, this grant is being cut and there is no certainty as to how much longer it will continue.

So now we come to the tough bit; should residents be prepared to pay a little bit more? From my perspective the answer is, unfortunately, yes. Failure to do so is just building problems for the future. I was talking to someone about this the other day and it is a bit like only paying off the minimum balance on your credit card each month  - you know it's not enough but you don't have to worry about it this month.

Even if Barnet had taken a very modest 1% increase in council tax each year, it would mean we would have around £14 million more to spend this year, negating the need for this year's cuts and borrowing from the reserves. The argument for not taking a council tax rise is that many families are hard pressed financially. That is also true but this whole problem has been brought about by central government cuts to local authority financing and all three constituencies returned Conservative MP's who have voted through these cuts.

I would also say that there are some savings still to be made at Barnet Council. We know about the very expensive PR & Communications team which you can read about here and the huge salary rises for some of the most senior staff but ultimately people have to be realistic and pay for key services like Children's and Adult Social Care.

I have raised a number of questions regarding the budget which I have set out below and I will update you when I get some answers.

  1. At the Policy & Resources Committee last year the detailed revenue budget showed an “original estimate” for 2017/18 of £270,333,880. This included £ 6,863,000 for Additional Income from Council Tax. In this year’s detailed revenue budget it states the “original estimate” for 2017/18 was £277,196,880 with the Additional Income from Council Tax left blank. How can the “original estimate” have changed and what has happened to the missing £6.8 million?
  2. Given that the external auditor said in the audit completion report “there is little margin available in reserves and balances to support any further revenue budget overspends or slippage on savings plans and management will need to revisit how these reserves are being utilised in the event of continued pressures on budgets”, do you think it is wise to recommend a budget that recognises pressures yet freezes Council tax and depends on reserves to make up some of the deficit?
  3. Given that the Council will be unable to levy a social care precept in 2019/20, and that you are forecasting a budget gap after savings and reserves of £5.965 million, even with a 2.99% council tax increase, do you think it is fiscally responsible to freeze council tax yet again this year?
  4. The report states that “it may become necessary to go to alternate weekly collection if recycling rates continue to plateau and/or the savings identified are not realised” does this two weekly collection refer just to residual waste or would it include two weekly collection of recycling and food waste as well?
  5. How confident are you that the savings forecast on the Your Choice Barnet contract aren’t simply adding to the deficit in The Barnet Group and what safeguards are in place to stop that happening?
  6. Can you clarify how the £300,000 decrease in concessionary fares will be achieved?
  7. Under Central Expenses can you clarify why, in the expenditure breakdown, the current estimate of capital financing for 2017/18 is approximately £11 million less than the original estimate for 2017/18 but that the original estimate for 2018/19 increases by £12.6 million over this year’s current estimate?
  8. Are the efficiency savings on third party contracts identified in the Children’s & Family services budget net or gross of any gainshare payments to Capita?
  9. Given the inadequate OFSTED report rating of Children’s Services and the fact that the original budget was overspent by £6 million to try and help resolve some of the issues identified, is it wise to forecast savings for 2018/19 of £2.1 million on Children’s Family Services for 2018/19?
  10. Why are no financial savings shown against the HB Law service – have they achieved the pinnacle of efficiency?

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