Saturday 11 January 2020

My responses to the Barnet Budget Consultation

Barnet Council are currently consulting on the budget for next year which you can find here. It is both complex and time consuming but it really matters as, based on this budget proposal, Barnet are facing a massive budget shortfall over the next five years.

Originally Barnet had planned a 2.99% council tax increase plus a 2% social care precept to get closer to closing the gap but the government reduce the threshold at which point a council has to hold a referendum from 2.99% to 1.99% so Barnet have opted for the lower figure. They are proposing many cuts but the issue is whether they are achievable or acceptable and even with these cuts, we will still have a massive on-going shortfall.  I would urge everyone to at least speak with their local councillor about the budget proposals even if they don't have the time to go through the consultation.

For what it's worth I have set out below my comments that I submitted as part of the consultation. Commenting on each budget cuts in each area:

Adults - you are using capital budget for community equipment which will not have an asset value, which cannot be transferred and which is a one off purchase. As such you will be constantly drawing from the capital budget which is not what the capital budget is for. Has this change been approved by the external auditor and if not is there a risk it will have to be reallocated to the revenue budget? The review of care packages to step down the accommodation setting to a less intensive option sometimes goes against the wishes of families and the individual which is unacceptable. The same issue is true for mental health packages. Purchasing nursing care packages from other boroughs means that friends and relatives will have to travel further to see their friends and loved ones and may mean they become isolated. Does the over-delivery against projected income from the GLL leisure services contract take into account the £700k of lost revenue to date caused by the closure of Finchley Lido?
Childrens: How can you be confident of delivering the savings of remodelled placements while at the same time delivering the same or better care. This seems a very large saving which, if it could have been made, would have happened before now. The service is demand led and due to the on-going austerity means that demand may continue to increase. The 4 day week for back office staff appears entirely implausible. If staff are not needed, then make the post redundant. The risk is that staff will end up doing 5 days work in 4 days, either causing burn out of staff, staff turnover to rise, or work not being done properly which could place children or staff at risk.
Environment: There is no supporting evidence to justify the £5 million of savings for "Smart Cities" whatever that means or for parking charges. The other issue for parking charges is that there are restricted services on which the special parking account funds can be spent so how confident are you that even if the money can be generated (for which there is no evidence) that it can be spent on services that are under cost pressure. Does the £700k of savings/increased revenue from advertising mean that the borough will become plastered in ugly advertising signage and with the continue shift of advertising revenues to online/social media what confidence is there that this is a robust and continuing revenue stream.
Housing: While all the new accommodation will generate more council tax there seems to be no recognition that more people means more demand for services. So with one hand you are making cuts to services yet with the other you are actively creating more demand by encouraging more development. It seems ludicrous to say you will generate £203k a year from subletting Barnet House when it is costing £65k a month for the next 12 years because the council moved offices to Colindale without exiting the lease at Barnet House. Exiting the lease at NLBP was always planned and part of the business case for moving to Colindale. This entry in effect shows the saving twice.
P&R: You are planning to reconfigure commercial, performance and executive support at a time when more rigorous control and enforcement of contracts is vital and when contractual failings have been repeatedly identified. This seems like a massive false economy. Are the cuts to the CSG contract real or on paper only?
On the proposed Council Tax Increase:
Barnet itself identified that you needed to increase council tax by at least 2.99% and that this has only been reduced because the government limit for a referendum has been reduced to 1.99%. To accept this cut in your planned budget is financially irresponsible. It is clear you need to increase council tax by more than 1.99% and if you refuse to make further increases it simply makes the problem worse as every year goes by. You have to act responsibly and if that means people have to pay more then so be it - you engineered this problem by 7 years of council tax freezes. To get to a balanced budget you need to take an 8% increase in CT in year 1 (+social care precept of 2%) and then 2.99% CT + 2% social care precept thereafter to get even close to a balanced budget by year 5. If you fail to act now you risk bankrupting the council in the next 3-5 years as your reserves chart clearly shows.

The problem is the public haven't been able to comment on any of these savings at committee stage because so many meetings were cancelled in the election purdah period and the public are now gagged from making comments or asking more than one question at committees. Consultation only has value if it is meaningful. Even opposition Councillors at the Policy & Resources Committee on Monday made the point that the details are so sketchy and that if a Councillor doesn't understand the detail, how can the general public be expected to understand them.

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