Monday 23 December 2019

Barnet still not managing its money

Barnet were due to hold a Financial Performance and Contracts Committee meeting last week but postponed it until the end of January due to election "purdah". I did write to Cllr Zinkin asking him to reconsider this decision given that there was nothing that would appear to breach purdah rules in the planned agenda and it is essential that Cllrs should keep a tight control over finances. He said that they wouldn't reconsider the meeting but that they would try to publish key financial information. This week he kept to his word and published what appear to be some of the reports that would have been considered.

However, what the key report shows is that at Month 7 (October) the Council was still forecasting an overspend this financial year by £6 million before drawdown from reserves. There are a number of reasons for this overspend. One of them is caused by the closure of the Finchley Lido while repairs to its unsafe roof are on-going, losing £736,000 of revenue. Here are a couple of pictures of the repair work courtesy of the GLL website.

The big worry is how much more is this going to cost to repair, while all the time it is losing revenue by being shut. It also makes you wonder how the roof was allowed to reach such a serious condition that such major works were required and why this problem wasn't picked up sooner.

Streetscene, which includes the bin collection service, is still £1.4 million overspent which is apparently due to additional agency staff costs and the service being split between two depots. As I have said many times, the bin reorganisation has been a disaster in that it has failed to save any of  budgeted savings, and hence the overspend. They also note that there is a £400,000 overspend on maintenance of the refuse vehicles. I know they have been having problems but they bought four new refuse vehicles last year when they reorganised the rounds and in the last 4 months have bought another 16 new  refuse vehicles at a cost of £3.4 million so that does seem to undermine their argument.

There is an overspend of £4 million on unfunded care packages for the elderly, albeit this is partially offset by an underspend in Learning Disabilities. It runs to the heart of the problem with Central Government who continue to push all the costs for elderly care onto individuals who, when they run out of money or if they lack the funds, become the responsibility of the local authority. Barnet has an ageing population and according to Barnet's own figures, the number of residents aged over 65 will grow by 37% over the next ten years. As such the financial pressure on Barnet to meet unfunded  adult care is likely to grow dramatically.

Children's and Family Services are overspent by £1.2 million of which £744,000 is down to staff overspend. After the Inadequate Rating of the service in 2017 money was thrown  at the problems including bringing in some very expensive staff on agency contracts. Perhaps if the council had been less ready to cut the budget in previous years the service might not have declined to the point where it need such a large injection of funds.

What is clear is that every year Barnet set savings targets and they consistently fail to achieve them. There is always a reason but it remains a worrying trend.

Over the next five years Barnet have a forecast budget shortfall of £118.7 million according to their own figures.

The new Conservative government appear to have made very little provision to address the massive cuts local authorities are going to be forced to make in the next 5 years. There is no policy to address the problem of social care funding which will put yet more pressure on local authorities.

These are all matters that councillors should have been discussing last week, looking at how Barnet can live with these huge financial problems yet this is now postponed till the end of January and because the public are effectively gagged there will be very limited public scrutiny.

Many people seems positive about this new government - Based on the finances, I have nothing but dread for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Seasons Greetings from Mr Reasonable.