Tag Archives: finance

Starting the 2015/16 budget process

The Coalition Government’s relentless cuts to councils, led by Secretary of State Eric Pickles, has created an extraordinary situation: Councillors of all parties across the country are united in their disgust at the way in which councils are being treated.

In recent days alone we’ve heard the Conservative Chair of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, warn once again of the devastating effects of the continued austerity measures imposed on councils. Sir Merrick’s successor as LGA Chair, Labour’s David Sparks, has also this week spoken out against the unsustainable funding situation facing council services. Meanwhile similar warning’s are being issued by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), the Rowntree trusts and many more.

There is a great deal of unity in expressing our deep concern about these national policies. We know we are only halfway through the government’s austerity programme, one which is set to continue regardless of who forms the next government after the general election.

But when it comes to the local decisions of how to best cope with these cuts, the differences start to emerge. Even experienced opposition councillors, who know options are few, can’t help themselves but blame the situation on whoever the incumbent party is. Local voters are too busy leading their lives to notice that across the country council administrations of every political hue are being forced to cut back.

All councils face the same crunch: Huge year on year reductions in government funding whilst service demand grows as the population increases, ages and health needs grow more complex.

In Brighton & Hove we face a £25 million hole in our budget for the next financial year, £18 million of that as a direct result of government cuts and the remainder due to increased pressure for our services.

As a Green minority administration we are committed to protecting the essential public services that our citizens depend on. So we will continue with a ‘value for money’ efficiency programme which has saved tens of millions so far. But that won’t be enough so we are also proposing a 5.9% council tax increase for next year. This is equivalent to £1.48 more per week for the usual comparator of a band D household, though the majority of homes in Brighton & Hove are in bands A to C.

This increase won’t plug the hole completely, but it will give us enough breathing room to retain public services, particularly social services for adults and children. We know that by making such bold proposals there is much greater engagement by residents in the realities of the huge challenges facing council finances. As the debates developed we’ve seen many agree that a greater contribution through council tax is needed to protect the services they value.

Opposition parties will continue to utter empty platitudes about the need to be more efficient and cut down on management, but citizens deserve better than such comments which could never plug our budget gap. We’ve saved tens of millions in efficiencies already, and reduced management spend to its lowest ever. Rather than having a go at each other, residents need their councillors to work together on the huge challenges ahead.

As a Green I’m committed to protecting public services, reducing inequality and improving my city’s wellbeing. These are particularly tough challenges at a time when budgets are being squeezed so hard. Yet I do believe that by backing a 5.9% tax increase we can keep supporting those in need while keeping Brighton & Hove great.

The crisis in local government funding: Why now is the time for a referendum (Part 2)

This is the second and concluding part on why now is the time for the citizens of Brighton & Hove to be asked whether they will support a 4.75% tax increase to protect council social care services. Part One is here.

Here in Brighton & Hove we have tried to absorb as much of the budget pressures as possible through being more efficient, more flexible and by reducing our footprint – in other words fitting our staff into fewer, more sustainable and efficient offices. This has yielded significant savings, but it won’t be enough for the very significant drops in funding the government plans over the next two years. In July 2013, based on government statements, council officers made their best predictions on how our core funding will drop in the coming years. Here’s their graph:

Main BHCC grant reductions

So in the face of this we do need to find more efficient ways of working – we have no choice. But we also need to raise money. We are looking at new ways of generating income, but those will take some time to pay dividends. More immediately we could increase fees and charges, but this isn’t always desirable, could only go so far and couldn’t possibly raise enough.

So the last option we are left with is council tax. It is an option that Eric Pickles has done his best to undermine and control local decisions with gimmicks like a ‘tax freeze grant’ and by adding an ‘excessive tax threshold’ over which councils are forced to seek permission for the increase through a referendum which can only be held after tax bills have gone out.

However for all its many imperfections, those with the biggest homes do pay more council tax and the poorest do get help paying it through our discount scheme known as ‘Council Tax Reduction’.

First though we need to understand the recent history of council tax in the city. In the last year of the Conservative administration they originally proposed a -1% council tax reduction, but this was amended to a freeze. Labour had originally agreed with us to still refuse the overall budget and revisit some of the other options. Sadly in the end Labour reneged, and supported the freeze. The next year Labour passed an amendment, backed by the Tories, to our first budget reducing a 3.5% council tax rise down to a freeze. It was only the year after that Labour, at the last moment, decided to support a 1.96% council tax rise.

Even setting aside the scale of government cuts in relation to our budget, what do these successive freezes do for the council’s financial position when compared with the pressures of inflation. This graph shows the situation since Greens took administration in 2011:

Total Green Inflation + Council Tax

As you can see, in real terms one of the only sources of income the council has influence over, is hugely behind inflation. It’s so far behind that it barely scrapes the surface of growing demand and government cuts. The imposition of a freeze by Labour and Tories in 2012 alone means that we have £3.7m less in the 2014/15 budget. Indeed we have cumulatively had £8.5m less since 2012 when compared with what our 3.5% proposal would have done. This additional income would have quite probably meant that we could have kept to a 2% rise for 2014/15. Many warned that freezes back then would lead to higher tax increases later, and this is proving to be case. Smaller, regular increases as we proposed was responsible, long-term thinking. Sadly, as Eric Pickles knew, too many were unable to resist the temptations of the short-termist freeze approach.

Let’s put all this history and our 4.75% proposal into perspective. Firstly let’s look at the average inflation and tax rises during our term in office and Labour’s terms:

Average CT + Inflation Labour vs Greens

Clearly Labour’s tax rises were far above inflation, while ours have been significantly below, even if the 4.75% proposal was to be agreed. And this was during the time of plenty. So in real terms council tax bills have been declining in value under Greens.

Now let’s look at the whole picture of tax increases and inflation since the city council was formed:

By party Council Tax + Inflation graph
Click for full sized graph


It’s important to note that the first budget of each administration is actually set by the previous administration just before the elections. So the 2011/12 budget, which we had to implement, was set by Tories in February 2011 just before we became the largest party in May 2011.

Clearly no party represented on the council today was averse to tax increases at one point or another when they were in charge. That continues to be the case: Right now we see Conservative-led councils like Kent advocating 2% increases and Sussex’s Conservative Police & Crime Commissioner just approving a 3.6% increase to her precept. Labour councils are seeking tax increases too and we see Labour council leaders backing our referendum proposal including from Preston and Brent.

What would our proposal cost? Setting aside Police and Fire precepts, which we don’t control, for our 4.75% proposals the majority of households would pay an additional £4.53 or less a month. It would raise £2.75m more than in our draft budget from December 2013 when we planned for a 2% rise. The extra money raised would go exclusively to protecting Home Care, Community Care, the supported employment service ‘Able & Willing’, and third sector grants. The nature of the budget and referendum processes mean it will be cast iron that the additional money raised would have to go to those services.

***

So there we have it. Our population is ageing, adding significant additional pressures on council budgets as we strive to deliver the care our most vulnerable deserve. We have an unprecedented scale of government funding cuts – which councils and political parties across the country agree is setting us up for a huge funding gap. And lastly, we have in recent years locally seen council tax fall well behind inflation meaning that it is not really contributing to relieving our intense funding pressures.

Social care is the council’s biggest area of spending, and is responsible for the most vulnerable in our society. The picture I’ve painted above shows that carrying on, even with the most clever efficiency savings we can possibly deliver, will mean a severe reduction in what care we can offer. I hope that isn’t what we want for our society. But now is the time to have the debate. The referendum process defined by government is imperfect, but it’s all we’ve got right now.

Some in the media want to skip straight to whether people will vote for or against the referendum question. That’s premature, right now we need to debate the reasoning for the referendum as I have set out here. We must discuss the principle of letting the city decide at this critical juncture for the future our public services, otherwise we risk this precious opportunity being rejected out of hand by a few councillors.

I believe it is right and just to ask the citizens of Brighton & Hove, before it is too late, “What future do you want for our elderly, disabled and vulnerable?”

Debate continues on Twitter under #bhbudget #brightondecides and #LetThePeopleDecide – join in!

The Brighton & Hove Independent are hosting a free public debate on the social care referendum on Monday 10th February at 7pm. Free tickets can be booked here.

The crisis in local government funding: Why now is the time for a referendum (Part 1)

There has been much political analysis in recent days over the ‘real’ reasons why I announced the Green administration’s plans for a social care referendum on a 4.75% council tax increase.

Opposition parties have tried to throw as much sand in the eyes of the public with a colourful array of false and misleading claims. I won’t dignify them further other than to say how unedifying it has been to see political leaders doing everything they can to avoid debating the genuine issues at hand: the huge financial pressures councils are under and the growing uncertainty over how social care can be provided into the future.

Let’s be clear, the reason I’ve proposed a referendum on a 4.75% tax rise for social care is because I think it’s the right thing to do. Let me now explain why in more detail.

In 2011 we made a commitment to publishing early drafts of council budgets to facilitate the consultation and engagement process. Every year so far the final budgets have changed for the better as a result of this process. It’s the right way to do things when we have to decide on the future of important services for our city. We did the same again this year and the feedback from the public, service users, advocacy groups and unions was clear. They were very concerned about the impact of budget cuts on the third sector and social care in particular. They’re not alone – the majority responding to the council’s budget questionnaire wanted funding to be maintained or increased for local services. Yet because of government cuts and growing demand for our services , we will have to spend £23m less for the coming 2014/15 financial year.

Why is social care under particular pressure? Well the number of people who need social care is growing. This includes those with physical and learning disabilities as well as the elderly. It’s no secret that as we are all living longer, the cost of social care is growing. Here’s a snapshot – looking at centenarians as just one of many examples – of how the ageing population is expected to grow in the coming years:

Growth of centenarians in the UK

 

Let’s bring that into the local context. Here are the ONS’ predictions for our city until 2021 along side the change in council funding from Government in a similar period:

 

Future population & council funding changes
Future population & council funding changes

 

Yes, the graph really does show over 85s increasing in number by 20%  and at the same time our government funding declining by 61%. This is why the cross-party Local Government Association has been doing increasingly detailed work on making clear the huge pressures councils face as austerity continues and pressures on services grows. This graph shows their predictions for unitary councils like Brighton & Hove:

 

LGA unitary funding forecast
LGA unitary council funding forecast

 

The gap between funding available and funding needed for existing services is incredibly stark: This is not for new or extra services – but just to keep things going. In local government circles this has been debated, with increasing angst, for some time. But it’s sadly the case that too little of this reality  has entered public debate.

Some have claimed that this is special pleading by the Greens but that’s simply not true. The Local Government Association has a cross-party consensus on the issue and their chairman, the Conservative Sir Merrick Cockell, has led the charge. Sir Merrick, also the former leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council has said:

“We are being pushed into a position where either things will fail or the system has to change … we can’t cope unless someone takes that big step … to change the way we operate … Vital services are being damaged because councils do not have a seat at the table to negotiate a fair deal for their communities.”

Similarly the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore has said:

“Birmingham faces a severe financial crisis. Politicians in Westminster are systematically dismantling services that maintain the very fabric of culture and community here.”

“These cuts will mean the end of local government as we know it … but that does not mean the end of local government. We now need to build the new local government that will replace it. We call on the government to make radical changes to the way local services are funded and provided.”

The Independent Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, has said:

“…every city in the UK is facing a massive budget challenge… It will not be without pain… No number of negative headlines will change the fundamentals: we [the city council] must balance our books…”

The Conservative leader of Devon County Council has said to local government ministers:

“The impact of [the] spending review has not been accurately portrayed… We cannot make these extra savings without reducing substantially the services we offer to the people of Devon.”

And the Labour Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has said:

“I believe community cohesion is being seriously threatened by the lack of funding to our city and others. I believe that the so-called ‘summer-of-discontent’ will happen again if we do not address this issue.”

So the problems of funding cuts are real, are being expressed loudly by all parties and are already hurting local services across the land.

In part two I will look in more detail at the particular situation we find ourselves in Brighton & Hove and why I believe our proposal is the right way to proceed. UPDATE: Part two has now been published.

Meanwhile debate continues on Twitter under #bhbudget #brightondecides and #LetThePeopleDecide plus comment pieces have been published by Local Government Chronicle editor Emma Maier, The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins and others as well as lots of excellent blog posts.

Two letters lobbying Iain Duncan Smith

I’ve not had the time to blog much lately, apologies. You can catch up with my weekly column on The Latest or Brighton & Hove Independent websites.

Below are two letters to Mr Duncan Smith highlighting serious concerns about how his department is treating local government.

To Iain Duncan Smith in the Department for Work and Pensions:

Dear Secretary of State,

We appreciate that the introduction of Universal Credit is no longer on the government’s original timetable. While delays that help ensure effective implementation are to be welcomed, I need to alert you that this creates additional financial pressures for councils.

You may be aware that the administration of housing benefit is funded by a specific grant from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). I am sure the original intention of this grant was to fully support local government in providing a service on its behalf. However unfortunately its costs have long outstripped its funding – in the latest national comparative figures available, 2012/13 national Housing Benefit Administration expenditure was expected to be 74% higher than the grant ( 102% in London and 69% in Unitary authorities) and for Brighton & Hove this was 98% – representing a subsidy from the council’s General fund of £2.938m. The administration grant continues to be subject to reductions, 10% for 2014/15 and yet the delays to the implementation of Universal Credit alongside reforms mean that efficiency savings of this magnitude are increasingly challenging. For example as individuals find they need to take more than one job or find themselves moving in and out of work more frequently so their circumstances require more frequent reassessing from a benefits perspective. This adds additional cost and complexity that will only be resolved at the point at which Universal Credit is introduced. In 2014/15 the gap between expenditure and income for Housing Benefits for Brighton & Hove is expected to be £3.397m – a direct subsidy from the council’s General Fund to deliver a DWP programme. While the council continues to review and benchmark its service against comparable local authorities, there is no evidence at the moment that this is out of line with others.

We appreciate that there is a desire to constantly improve efficiency and reduce costs to the taxpayer. We, like many authorities, have successfully driven down our costs while maintaining high standards of service. However there does come a point, when service effectiveness is a matter of having enough resource to meet demand and while we continue to strive to make our service more efficient the gap between funding and actual cost is an increasing burden that Local Government cannot afford to accept on the DWP’s behalf.

I therefore call on you to reconsider the funding position for HB admin subsidy to let our costs be covered. The money that has been taken out of the admin grant over the years makes it increasingly difficult of us to deliver this statutory social security benefit on your behalf. Other local services have had to be cut to fund our ongoing delivery of this national benefit. I do not believe taxpayers would consider this fair or justifiable.

I await your response.

Thank you
Cllr Jason Kitcat
Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council

—–

 

Dear Secretary of State,

Proposals to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS)

We are aware that the Autumn Statement 2013 has confirmed that government plans to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS) during 2014.

Brighton & Hove City Council is very concerned at the current plans to operate SFIS as an organisation wholly managed and operated by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). We believe current plans have been adopted without due consideration to local authorities’ views and without full consideration of the impact such changes would have on counter fraud activity outside of SFIS, especially those areas under the remit of local government. We would strongly urge you to reconsider how SFIS is implemented.

We recognise that SFIS could be a great opportunity to make a real difference to investigating welfare and related frauds and to work in a truly collaborative way. As it stands, we believe that local authorities will be left more vulnerable to fraud attacks if current proposals go ahead. We also believe that reported savings of operating SFIS could therefore be offset by wider fraud losses across local government.

In this council, not only do we operate a Housing Benefit investigation team but we also host one of two National Anti-Fraud Network (NAFN) offices that provides first class data and intelligence services to over 350 councils. Through these services, currently it is common for local authorities to link investigations together e.g. ‘blue badge’ fraud and benefit frauds; housing tenancy fraud and benefit fraud.  Under SFIS proposals, much of the benefit of this type of combined investigation will disappear, as will any links between local authority corporate fraud work and SFIS. This simply does not make sense.

Allied to this, there will be no or limited links between SFIS investigations and Council Tax Reduction Scheme investigations. Again, a collaborative approach would be our preferred solution rather than two separate investigations undertaken by different organisations with potentially two separate prosecutions being undertaken at the same time. There is potential for significant process duplication and preventable costs.

At Brighton & Hove, in common with a number of authorities, we have recently set up a Corporate Fraud Team to undertake fraud investigations across a wider spectrum of our activities. We are concerned that the current proposals do not provide sufficient time to develop this unit and also that any work it carries out in future will be in isolation from SFIS. Again, this would not appear to be well thought through, especially with the introduction of powers to make housing tenancy fraud a criminal offence.

NAFN is recognised as a centre of excellence in local government and its services extend well beyond local authorities. For instance, NAFN processes all of the DWP’s fraud related vehicle checks. The introduction of SFIS as currently proposed would be likely to reduce NAFN resources considerably and therefore the impact on the wider fraud community in terms of protecting public funds could be considerable.

We are also concerned about the impact on localism. Centralisation of welfare benefit fraud investigations would appear to go against the grain of the localism agenda supported by the rest of government.

We would strongly urge further constructive and meaningful consultation on current proposals so that we can identify a solution that would be beneficial to all areas of central and local government.

Should you have any queries or wish to discuss the matter any further, I would be most willing to provide further information or meet you to talk through these issues.

Yours sincerely,

 

Councillor Jason Kitcat                              Councillor Leslie Hamilton

Leader of the Council                                 Chair of the Audit & Standards Committee

Modernising the council and responding to Tory opportunism

During our term of office the Green administration has been working hard to keep lowering the council’s costs and reducing our carbon footprint. A major part of this work has been focussed on the buildings we use.

Brighton & Hove City Council was formed from the merger of a number of different councils which themselves had amalgamated others bits of councils further back in history. So it’s no surprise that there was quite a spread of properties, of varying quality and value, in us. As the government continues to cut council funding our staff numbers are declining through voluntary severance and recruitment freeze. This and technology allow us to dramatically reduce the number of buildings we need to provide council services.

This programme of rationalising buildings is called ‘workstyles’ and began under the previous Conservative administration. Greens have accelerated this work, linked in more IT and service modernisation plus greater ambitions for sustainability.

The final phase, number three, is the biggest and most important. It covers a very significant number of staff and some of our largest, most high profile, offices in a programme that will take 3-4 years to complete. As we are a no overall control council and this work will extend into the next 4 year term, all party leaders have been briefed on the plans. This started in earnest just over a year ago leading to a decision at Policy & Resources Committee in October 2012 which set the principles for this phase. The key principle being that the entirety of our Kings House offices would be sold to fund either moving entirely into Hove Town Hall or into part of Hove Town Hall plus another unidentified building. Either way the decision was clear that savings (in cash and carbon emissions) could only be made with the investment of the capital that selling Kings House would provide. This was agreed with the support of the Conservative councillors on that committee.

The very significant work that decision required has now been done. The clear recommendation from all the analysis is to move remaining staff entirely into Hove Town Hall. As this programme is key to saving the council money, enabling major service redesigns and essential IT investment, we didn’t want to delay. So with cross-party agreement I called a special meeting of the Policy & Resources Committee for this month specifically so that we could crack on with the Workstyles phase 3 programme (otherwise there wouldn’t have been a scheduled meeting until mid-October).

Last Monday the party leaders met for our monthly Leaders’ Group meeting and we discussed Workstyles. There was no suggestion of any concern about the report, just some questions about some of the planning that would need to happen whilst building works were underway and what the refurbished Hove council chamber might be like.

So it was with considerable disappointment that on Wednesday I learnt of a Conservative amendment to the plans through Brighton and Hove News — the next day the Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald sent me the full text of the amendment which aims to tear up the workstyles programme by putting a school on the rear half of the Kings House site.

It somewhat renders the year of briefings and discussions pointless if a party is going to then opportunistically seek to amend at the last moment via press release. Even more so when the Conservatives voted for the principle of selling all of Kings House off less than a year ago!

Workstyles is essential to the council’s financial future as well as its ability to meet the challenges of changing demand. You’d think Tories, who started it, might understand that! Instead they want to offer up the most valuable part of Kings House to a free school who I understand they have already lined up a sponsor for. If their plan went ahead it would totally shatter the financial savings and it would eliminate the opportunity for a significant amount of much needed affordable housing to be built on the site. Furthermore, because of the nature of the Workstyles programme’s need for works to happen elsewhere first, the site couldn’t open as a school before 2017 at the earliest.

Having had discussions at the end of last week I’m pleased that the Labour group leader Warren Morgan has confirmed that he, like the Greens, will oppose the Conservative approach thus allowing this important project to move forward unimpeded.

Yes there is currently pressure on school places in the West of our city. But lots of work is underway with school expansions and already approved Free Schools getting going. A last-minute Tory attempt to make an essential and very long-term programme about schools is deeply opportunistic. It also undermines the whole point of repeated cross-party briefing to find consensus in our times as a no overall control council.

As Council Leader I will keep working hard to find open and consensual ways of working cross-party so that we can put the needs of our city first, and politics second.

The draft Green budget for 2013/14 – protecting essential services

This week we have published our draft council budget proposals for 2013/14. Despite almost weekly changes from Government, we are continuing with our ‘open book’ approach and have published the bulk of our plans now – much earlier than previous administrations have done.

This will enable an extensive period of public consultation, including a council scrutiny process involving representatives from all parties, the community & voluntary sector and the business community. Last year our budget was all the better for this extensive input, and I’m confident that our commitment to openness will pay dividends again this year. You can find out about ways to influence the budget at http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/bhbudget

This year the Coalition government have continued their increasingly harmful austerity measures, targeting local government more than ever. While Whitehall have reduced their budgets by 8%, councils have already reduced spending by 28%. Delivering around 800 services, more often than not it is the council that gets new homes and classrooms built, supports local business innovation and improves quality of life through transport, public health and planning. Despite experts lining up to tell government that wildly cutting council resources only damages our local economies and local services, the government is refusing to listen.

We are seeking a 2% council tax increase, which is below inflation and will cost 43p more a week for the average household in the city. This will help offset 10% of the government cuts. This funding is particularly important as we are committed to offsetting as much as possible of the government cuts to council tax benefit. In Brighton & Hove, we have put set aside over £1.5m to support those least able to pay while capping the amount anyone will have to pay to no more than £3 per week. By definition this discount supports those on the lowest incomes in our city, and it’s important that we keep protect those

However government announcements in recent months have taken a further £10m from the city than we had expected when work started on the 2013/14 budget in June.

Thankfully our introduction of a 2-year budgeting process and the forward-planning it encouraged, meant we could bring forward some proposals from 2014/15 to help meet this growing challenge. We also are on track to deliver a significant underspend for the second year running, because of our excellent officers and our commitment to managing every penny spent carefully.

As a result we have been able to protect all branch libraries and children’s centres for another year, despite Coalition austerity measures. We have set aside £100k to provide business rate incentives for the kind of firms we want to attract to our city. We’ve identified £300k of funding to support third sector finance advice services that are seeing demand skyrocket due to welfare cuts. By investing in these services we know we are preventing bigger problems in the future for those struggling to make ends meet, whilst also supporting valuable third sector organisations in our city.

We are working hard to find new ways of bringing external money to the city, such as the commercial deal with the i360 where a loan from the national Public Works Loans Board will generate income for the council.

We will maintain a significant investment in transport improvements, including a pilot scheme to control verge parking, and a new, more accurate real time bus information service. Thanks to our clear commitment, we are attracting significant external funding to make our own money go further.

This is a digital, creative city, which hosts an incredible range of businesses and research, We will be investing in the digital infrastructure needed to keep us  at the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Our city has had a raw deal from government, but we’re committed to doing as much as possible to protect services for the benefit of everyone who needs them. I believe the draft budget sets our council on the right course for reducing our spending while delivering for our city.

UPDATE:

Some handy links for finding out more on the draft budget proposals…

The Very Existence of Local Government Hangs in the Balance

This blog is loosely based on comments I made to the Local Government Association’s Independent Group Annual Conference on 22nd October 2012.

As Leader of the first and only Green-led council I am perhaps more free to speak to other council leaders than some other leaders. Time and again I find common ground with them in lamenting Whitehall’s controlling approach to local government. None welcome resources being stripped away in haphazard and sudden ways which make long term planning incredibly difficult.

For example, government announcements over the past few weeks have dragged Brighton & Hove’s expected budget gap for 2013/14 down by approximately another £10 million. Yet we can’t be exactly sure until late December, when we hope for exact figures from government departments.

What’s striking is that while councillors and the Local Government Association can find so much common ground, this is rarely reflected in the actions of those in Westminster and Whitehall. I believe that never before has the gulf between local and central government thinking grown so wide. Something is seriously wrong when councillors, who make up the key activist ranks of all political parties, are being so often ignored by their national political leaderships.

The sorry consensus between Osborne and Balls, Milliband and Cameron is that cuts to local government will continue into the next Parliament. This is despite councils already having been cut far more than other parts of government, 28% cut from councils whilst just 8% from Whitehall by some estimates. Furthermore the LGA’s “graph of doom” clearly shows that council resources for doing anything beyond social care will be gone in a matter of years.

We are in a fight for the future of local government, the very existence of local councils hangs in the balance. No major party has explicitly stated that they are seeking to end the concept of independent local government, but that is where we are headed if we do not act now.

Let’s be clear, I’m not making a party political point here. No major party in Parliament is beyond reproach – whether Labour refusing to back LGA amendments on council tax in the Lords or the Coalition imposing new planning rules on extensions. We need to break the Westminster consensus which talks a good game about ‘place’ and ‘localism’ but steadily delivers less resources and independence to councillors.

Everyone who believes it is right that we have local democracies and local authorities delivering services to a defined place needs to speak out. Great places such as the world class cities where people flock to live, work and visit are the result of local government action and strong local leadership. We are doing our country a great disservice by undermining the local political sphere. Indeed, MPs should take heed, for it is on the back of councillors they win elections.

Unless we collectively and powerfully act now to shift thinking we will see councils irreversibly wither away over the next few years, and we would all be the poorer for that.

Passing the first Green council budget

The next financial year in Brighton & Hove will see a first… the first ever Green council budget will be the basis of how our council runs.

 

Last night was the budget council meeting where we Greens proposed and passed our budget. In the face of the government’s harsh, ill-conceived austerity programme it was a budget of political hope. To show that change is possible, that Labour and Tories don’t have an unbreakable grip on political power. Our budget showed up the opposition’s favourite lie, that Greens aren’t up to the job of governing.

 

In the face of above average government cuts our budget protected so much that the vulnerable and needy in our city depend on. We protected grants for the third sector, the adult social care eligibility criteria, the parks service, support for carers, staff terms and conditions, the living wage for our lowest paid staff, the preventing homelessness budget, youth services and branch libraries. We’ve expanded joint working with the third sector and public sector both in and out of the city. Overall the budgets for children’s and adult social care budgets will see no decline over two years.

 

We produced this budget in a new way – more open, more inclusive with more detail than ever before. We produced a two year budget for the first time, publishing earlier than ever before. We involved the opposition parties, unions and community & voluntary sector more often and in more detail than ever before.

 

For the first time there is a carbon budget, we have expanded the equality impact assessment process and extended the Value For Money programme to find greater efficiencies.

 

The capital programme also had a huge amount of positives, the Local Transport Plan funding almost doubled and completely protected for use on improving city infrastructure for the first time in living memory. Funding for new school places, a new library, solar panels, investment in social care buildings and much more.

 

Yes, due to government cuts, some services will be reduced, fees will go up, efficiencies will be found – but so much has been protected. We acknowledged the concerns of allotment holders over free increases there, which is why we responded by spreading the increases over two years. Over the next year I’m committed to working with the allotment community to expand concessionary rates, open new allotments and address the issues they’ve raised.

 

We had new initiatives too like £300k to fund 3rd sector youth services, £120k from auctioning the mayor’s number plate to fund 3rd sector capital investment, pilots for food waste and commercial waste collections.

 

We also proposed to reject the Tory tax freeze. Our 3.5% council tax increase, one of the lowest increases in this council’s history, would protect our funding base and help us to offset the worst of the cuts. A tax position supported by GMB, Unison and NUT unions and followed by 30 councils around the country. They all could see that the one-off tax freeze the Tory government wanted us to take this year was a con trick, which would leave us worse off in the long run.

 

And so it proved to be, we will be worse off in the long run now. Sadly, and I truly mean that, the Labour group — despite our repeated attempts to negotiate with them — produced an amendment which was almost identical to the Tory amendment to introduce a tax freeze. They have started to think just like Tories. So whilst shocking Tory amendments to close a nursery, axe union officers and slash support for those experiencing benefit cuts were defeated, Tories and Labour voted together to adopt the tax freeze.

 

You expect Tories to cut government, that’s what they do. But for Labour, when we’re experiencing above average cuts as a city (indeed the highest for our region), to push more cuts on this council is utterly shocking.

 

Their amendment slashed funding for our sustainability team, cut funding for training staff, reduced council communications with residents, cut funding for bringing private empty homes back into use whilst adding an additional £3.6m cut to next year’s budget – without any attempt to explain how they would pay for that.

 

Despite having made so much noise on City in Bloom, public toilets, sports fees, children’s centres and more none of these were in their amendment. In fact they never even submitted a petition on those issues – they were just leaflet fodder for them. This city has seen New Labour become Blue Labour as they’ve shifted hard right, falling into the Tory trap of the tax freeze, which leaves our council worse off for years to come.

 

Labour also have made false claims that they’ve saved the mobile library. They haven’t. Their amendment to fund a new vehicle is £40,000 short on the running costs. Unless they can identify that money there’s no new mobile library – another financial gimmick is all they could offer.

 

Clearly I am disappointed that the tax freeze was imposed on our budget. But that’s democracy, the other two parties voted for a Tory policy and voters will know who added to the burden of cuts and austerity in our city. We voted against the amendments. There were many, many speeches last night, some of them good. My wife and ward colleague made her mark with a witty maiden speech rebutting some nasty xenophobia from the Tory benches. Not everyone likes the theatrics of council meetings, but I think it’s important every councillor is given the chance to explain their views and position if they so wish. I personally do enjoy hearing the views expressed, even if they do sometimes exasperate.

 

With only one amendment passing, we were left with an over 99% Green budget. None of us want there to be cuts, Greens adamantly oppose cuts and austerity, but sadly our system of government gives the council little choice on the reductions passed down to us. The Green budget was a fair budget for tough times, protecting vital services. Clearly the other parties agreed, joining us in voting through our financial plans for the next year.

 

My door remains open to opposition councillors wanting to begin the co-operative working they’ve so far felt unable to embark on. But first and foremost I’m focussed on delivering our Green manifesto and budget to build a better, fairer city for our future.

Budget shadow boxing

The end of January saw councillors pile into a full council meeting at Hove Town Hall. It was the final opportunity for full council motions and petitions before the budget council meeting on 23rd February.

We’ve seen yet more rhetoric on the budget from all sides. The huge contradictions in the positions the opposition are taking have been particularly notable. In the same meeting Greens were accused of being ideological and making U-turns – which is somewhat contradictory! Either we’re making choices out of belief, regardless of context, or we’re changing our minds in response to feedback but it can’t be both.

Similarly we’ve seen both Tories and Labour oppose a wide range of our revenue raising ideas: fees & charges, changes to parking tariffs and council tax plans. Yet they’ve also opposed many of our ideas for saving money. The result would be a hugely imbalanced budget. We’ve yet to see any suggestions on how they would fund their ideas and make the budget balance.

Meanwhile the number of councils following our lead on rejecting the tax freeze is up to 27. These include some huge councils like Surrey and Cambridgeshire Counties and include Labour and Conservative led authorities. As the list has grown Tory ministers have grown more frantic. They’ve behaved like sulky children who haven’t got their way: Huffing, puffing and whining. The level of rhetoric has been extraordinary, but in the end they have revealed their hand. Two Tory local government ministers, Bob Neil and Eric Pickles, have both now publicly admitted that the tax freeze will see reduced funding for councils and will fundamentally lower their tax base. In other words it’s another cut. This is what Bob Neill wrote in a letter to councillors and MPs:

I appreciate that savings this and next year will have to be made to help achieve this [the tax freeze] – but this is also for councils to reform, restructure and innovate, and lower your spending base permanently.

This is the same old Tory policy, reduce government by hook or by crook. So no real surprises there, though dressing it as a tax freeze is a nasty bit of spin. What I find extraordinary is how the Brighton & Hove Labour party continue to support this Tory policy. Again and again they back Tories locally and nationally by supporting this freeze which will mean £5.4m less over two years to protect council jobs and services in our city. The branch secretaries of the the local GMB, Unison and NUT unions support the Green tax plan, but Labour aren’t listening. For them to protest the cuts yet actually support one of the most cynical Tory slashes is extraordinary.

Last year, in opposition, Green councillors published an alternative budget to further the council budget debate and explain our position. This year both Labour and Tories say they couldn’t do such a thing and so they continue to make nothing but un-costed claims. It’s a shame they haven’t felt able to participate more meaningfully in the council budget dialogue. We will persist with a more open budget process and I hope in coming years opposition parties will take a greater role in building informed debate.

For this year, the list of tax freeze rebel councils keeps growing, and we’ll keep talking with residents as the budget council meeting approaches.

The £3m grant that would cost our council £5.4m

At the Conservative Party conference this autumn ministers announced a new gimmick: a council tax freeze grant. If councils agreed to keep council tax at the same rate as the previous year they would get a grant worth the equivalent of a 2.5% increase, for one year only.

On the face of it a clever way to show that Conservatives care about the squeezed middle classes in the face of increased inflation. Yet the harsh reality is this scheme doesn’t make financial sense for councils, and is yet another way the government are slashing budgets for local services. And in the long run it would likely lead to even greater council tax increases.

It’s absolutely clear to me that Greens were voted the largest party on Brighton & Hove City Council because of our commitment to public services and resisting the Tory agenda of “small government”. Residents expect us to use our Green values to fight for the fairest possible settlement in the face of unprecedented cuts from central government.

The tax freeze grant is another attack, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which we oppose.

Why is it bad for the council? Because it would over 2 years cost us £5.4m, and more over the longer term. Let’s explore that in detail with an imaginary council called Picklesville with a £100 of income this year from council tax.

For the next year the councillors in Picklesville can either take the government’s grant worth a 2.5% increase or go with the Green option of a 3.5% increase.

If they take the government route they will receive £100 + £2.50 = £102.50 (£2.50 being the 2.5% grant from government).

If they go the Green route they will receive £100 + £3.50 = £103.50 (£3.50 being the 3.5% increase on council tax).

The next year the Picklesville councillors again need to decide on council tax. If they went for the government grant, that is now gone. So to catch up in the face of continued reductions in their formula grant (the other main source of income for councils other than charges) they decide to put council tax up by the maximum allowed, which is 3.5%. However because of last year’s freeze the starting point hasn’t moved. So they will receive £100 + £3.50 = £103.50 (£3.50 being the 3.5% increase on council tax over the previous year).

If they had gone the Green route then, still facing huge cuts in formula grant, they also decide to increase council tax by 3.5% so they receive £103.50 + £3.62 = £107.12 (£3.62 being the 3.5% increase on council tax over the previous year), quite a bit more than the other option.

These are of course hugely simplified numbers, but if you think in millions of pounds you can see that just freezing for one year (which every council already did for this financial year) leaves councils way behind each year, even if they keep increasing council tax. For Brighton & Hove accepting the one year freeze grant would mean £5.4m less income over 2 years. As we need to find savings of about £35m for the next two financial years, that £5.4m is money we can ill afford to give up.

With inflation running at over 5% and councils not allowed to increase council tax beyond 3.5%, council income is falling further and further behind the increasing costs our service providers are experiencing, even if we do increase tax by as much as we’re allowed.

The difference for the average council tax paying household in the city will be 57p a week, but the council can collectively use all those extra pennies to great use in protecting services and jobs the Tories would rather we axed. I’ve challenged the local Tories to list the extra £5.4m of service cuts they would propose if we adopt the grant as they are advocating.

Brighton & Hove is not the kind of place where we want to give up on the elderly, marginalised or vulnerable – those most in need of help. We believe in civilisation, in public service and the greater good.

A £3m grant that loses us £5.4m is not a good deal, how could it be? Accepting it would be agreeing to more Tory cuts, and acquiescing to the cynical politics of the Coalition government. As a Green, I resist.

(For the next 6 days you can watch the BBC Politics Show’s take on this here from the 38 minute mark)

UPDATED 26/11/2011: Revised figures now show the lost income from taking the grant would be £5.4m (this post originally had the figure at £4m). I also have clarified the difference in cost to be 57p per household (previously I referred to tax payer which is imprecise as council tax applies to properties and not people).

Local Government Chronicle has also shot a hole through Tory rhetoric that “Greens are the only ones” taking this approach, their survey shows 20% of councils (2/3rd of which are Tory led) are likely to reject the freeze grant. Furthermore many who said they would take the grant admitted it would lead to higher tax in future years. Exactly as I have said all along…

UPDATE 5/12/11: This interesting piece shows that most of the freeze grant has been taken from local government pensions funds. Completely unethical especially given the government rhetoric about the funds being a ‘burden’ which need more contributions.