This was the first time the council had the opportunity to debate its budget and alternative budget proposals, due to the lateness of the local government financial settlement - councils received news of their funding in the week before Christmas, and there are still a number of grants that they don't know about - for children's services and small business rate relief. As the council's Section 151 Officer said - the situation is changing on a daily basis.
The debate was also made difficult because of the council's sound system - microphones were not working, and the hearing loop and powerpoint projector seemed to be causing interference. The engineer present at the meeting tried to sort the problem but couldn't. This is a major issue for local democracy if either councillors cannot hear the debate and members of the public in the public gallery cannot hear the debate. One of the Executive members has said he will sort it out.
The budget and opposition groups' alternative budgets can be found under 15th January Council meeting at this link: http://www.n-somerset.gov.uk/cairo/committees/comidx163-2012.asp
The council leader began the budget debate - introduced the council's latest budget report and also proposed a council tax increase of 1.5%, much to my surprise.
The Opposition groups - Green/Independent, Lib Dem and Labour put forward their amendments, while noting that it had been difficult to produce alternative budgets this year, because the council's own budget has little detail on £1.6 million of extra directorate cuts - there is no indication of what services will be impacted and what the staff impact will be. Opposition councillors also argued for the council to reject the freeze grant, increase council tax by 2%, reduce contingency, and use some of the council's reserves. This would then enable them to put money into the budget to support youth clubs, carers, voluntary sector services, and retail development amongst others things.
Councillor Leimdorfer made the point that a 2% council tax increase amounts to about £25 a year for the average council tax payer, and that the difference between a 1.5% and a 2% increase for the average council tax payer is about £6 a year and yet the council would rather penalise 9000 low income families in North Somerset who will lose an average of £165 a year because of the new Council Tax Support Scheme, which the council also voted through at tonight's meeting.
2 of the opposition budgets also included charging council staff to park. As the UNISON Rep present I was asked by Councillor Lake for my view on this, and I made it clear that although we recognise the valid reasons for this proposal, particularly the difficult situation caused by charging central Weston residents to park, and also encouraging staff to use more sustainable methods of transport, but that at this time after 3 years of a pay freeze and a number of years where staff terms and conditions have been chipped away, most recently the new flexi time policy, that this would be the final straw for our members. As a result UNISON cannot support this aspect of the opposition budgets, but there are other things in the opposition budgets that we do support.
The council's Executive will consider the opposition amendments and produce a final budget report for their meeting on 5th February, which will then be debated at the full council meeting on 19th February, where the budget will be set.
Here's my speech from tonight's North Somerset Council meeting:
"I imagine that most if not all of you would like to give Eric Pickles a punch in the face. Apart from the obvious fact of the massive cuts to funding, the lateness of the final local government settlement has made it very difficult for councils to set their budgets this year. The Local Government Secretary’s list of 50 ways for councils to make savings is patronising to say the least, and in North Somerset’s case there’s little on the list that the council hasn’t done already.
But rather than physically attack Mr Pickles and end up in prison for doing so, I’d like you to consider giving him a metaphorical punch in the face by rejecting the 1% council tax freeze grant for this year and either increasing council tax up to the cap of 2% or going for a knockout blow by increasing council tax above the cap, creating two budgets and putting them out to a referendum for the people of North Somerset to decide.
Our reasons are simple. As long as councils, particularly Conservative councils, continue to accept the council tax freeze grant, and as long as you keep council tax either frozen, or low, this reinforces the message that all is OK within local government. It seems to me that because you have accepted the freeze grant in previous years Mr Pickles and his colleagues at Westminster have been given the impression that you don’t need the income raised through council tax to provide vital public services to the people of North Somerset. This may also be the reason that they have not listened to your requests for increased funding. It is now time to send Westminster a message that the funding cuts are having a massive impact on the council’s ability to deliver essential public services, and that increasing council tax is the only option that you and other councils have.
North Somerset Council already faces a budget hole of £3 million from 2015 onwards when the previous 2 years freeze grants drop out. If you accept this year’s freeze grant that budget hole will increase to almost £4 million. This will make it necessary for you to agree well above inflation council tax increases for future years, or the alternative will be even greater cuts from 2015 onwards. But small increases this year and in 2014 would enable you to start recouping some of the income you have lost by accepting the freeze grant over the last 2 years. For instance a 2% increase this year, followed by a 2% increase next year will plug the £3 million budget hole you will have in 2015 when the council tax freeze grants drop out, and the cuts you are required to make will be that much less as a result. A council tax increase above the 2% cap would obviously further improve this situation.
I have previously expressed UNISON’s view that the public spending cuts are unfair because they are hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest – the Council Tax Support Scheme which you will be discussing this evening demonstrates that clearly. Reductions in council tax benefit will also impact on the almost 20% of council staff who earn below the living wage. If it wasn’t before, it is now crystal clear that we are not all in this together. Your staff and the services they deliver cannot take any further cuts. The North Somerset economy cannot take any further job losses, and the resulting loss of income for local businesses. It is plain for all to see that austerity is not working, and the prospects of a triple dip recession loom on the horizon. This in turn will create greater demand for council services.
This year it is crucial that North Somerset and other Conservative councils reject the freeze grant. Eric Pickles has spent the last two and a half years kicking local government from all sides. Now is the time for councils to stand up to this government. Now is the time for councils to send a very strong signal that all is not well in local government. Now is the time for councils to stand up and defend their citizens. The way you can do this is to reject the freeze grant, and increase council tax up to the cap."