Basildon Council’s Policy and Resources Committee will meet on 25 January to agree the budget for 2018/19 it will recommend to Council.
It’s always the council tax figure that grabs the headlines – people want to know the impact on their pocket, I get that. But there is so much more to it than that – and so much more that has a direct impact on the quality of life for people who live in our borough day in day out. Because it is how the decisions we make in the budget will affect the services people use every day that is really important to me. How will our street cleaning be affected, our parks, our rubbish collections and so on.
Make no mistake, balancing our budget has not been easy. Figures released last week show that Basildon Council is the 11th hardest hit in the country by Government cuts this year, losing almost 25% of its central Government funding. And we face continued uncertainty about the council’s future funding because we still don’t have the longer-term reform we have been promised time and again by the government.
So when it comes to the council tax rate, we have really had very little choice. The Government has worked out its funding figures for councils assuming each council will put up council tax by as much as we can, without triggering a local referendum.
This year that is a 2.98% rise – equal to around 15p a week on a Band D bill. Crucially, this move raises around £157,000 extra income for Basildon council by increasing tax from 2% to 3%. At a time when there is little money around and a £4.1m blackhole to fill, you wouldn't expect me to say no to any additional income for the council. It would be a dereliction of duty on my part if I did. In fact, if we didn’t do this we would have to make up the shortfall with cuts to services. And, while I hate higher bills as much as anyone, I have been determined since I took up this office to do everything I can to protect the services that people in this borough need most.
I was told back in May that I would have to reduce your bin collections from every week to every fortnight and I was told that I would have to charge every household for the collection of green waste. I rejected that approach because I don't think residents would accept more rubbish being left on our streets and reducing further, the already diminished civic pride in the place we all call home.
So the compromise choice that I propose is to raise tax.
I anticipated that the government wouldn't get its act together and provide local government with the certainty it needs to plan long term, so soon after I was elected Chairman of Policy and Resources Committee last May I set about restructuring the council from the inside in order to protect front line services. And that is now paying dividends. I was also committed to listening to what people told us in our budget consultation.
More people than ever responded to our survey and backed money raising ideas like increasing investments in commercial buildings to make money that can be used to fund local services and, as well as building more affordable homes, investing more in building homes for private rent and sale to generate income. These ideas will be in our proposed budget. They also backed an approach that increased council tax a bit to protect the most important services where possible over higher increases to protect all services or a freeze or a cut in council tax that would see further reductions in services.
This year’s budget proposal is only made possible by savings and income generation measures totalling £4.1m.
Agreeing the budget won’t be the end of the job. We will have to work hard to make sure we bring in the money we have budgeted for and follow through on our commitments to work in new and different ways to save money.
We’ve protected front line services and we have also made sure the council is still in good shape to deliver on our ambitions for the borough, which we set out in our corporate plan, and face future challenges.
We need contingencies because of the uncertainty over future funding we face. In place of the promised long-term reform, we have more pilots and more consultation, but no action. We, alongside our Essex council colleagues put ourselves forward to pilot 100% business rates retention, but were overlooked. We’re left to stagger from one cut to the next cut – as if we were being left to bleed to death. We need a long-term settlement on fairer funding quickly and we need greater powers to make our own decisions locally about how to fund our services.
I hope that all councillors will unite behind our proposed budget and speak as one to get a better deal for our communities.