Today has felt a very long time coming. It was in March of last year that it became clear the global pandemic would hit Crawley hard and while, rightly at the time, all action was focused on determining the best approach for getting the town through the first lockdown and the immediate challenges involved:
Ensuring those shielding had access to food and medicine
Working with the police to ensure compliance with the rules and restrict access to prohibited areas
And making our services COVID-safe, so that the council could continue to undertake the full range of its duties on behalf of the community.
Throughout it all we knew that this year’s budget would require substantial cuts, the first this council has had to make in a number of years.
The reality is that the vast majority of the council’s money to pay for services comes from three sources: retained business rates, council tax, and income generated locally (paying services, fees and charges).
Crawley’s economy has been hit harder than almost any other and as a result our level of business rates has dropped hugely over this year, something which will not recover until all those empty units are filled again.
The knock-on effect to unemployment means that far more households now qualify for council tax benefit, meaning fewer people paying council tax towards services.
And throughout the lockdowns the council’s paying services have not only not made money, but lost substantial amounts of money due to a range contractual obligations.
While the last of these three things may recover quickly once the restrictions have ended, the reality is that business rates and our council tax base will only return to previous levels when Crawley’s economy has fully recovered.
Mr Mayor, we can only spend money the council has. Unlike central government, we cannot legally borrow to fund our services, the law also states that the council cannot fund services from our capital reserves and were the council to set a budget which committed to spend money the council did not have, under local government legislation the government would send in commissioners to take a red pen to the budget, without understanding or concern for the needs and priorities of the community.
So, when the council’s income drops, we have two choices: find a way to make the money back elsewhere, or cut spending down to our new income.
For the last six years, this council has taken the former approach. Wherever we have faced cuts, we’ve set about making the money back elsewhere. Investing those reserves we can’t spend on services in property, to upgrade the council’s paying-facilities to bring more money in, and rebuilding the current expensive-to-run Town Hall with a much lower running cost facility with new income streams from A-grade commercial space and its low-carbon District Heat Network.
I would dearly love to take this route again, to pull another rabbit out of our hat and keep things as they are. Unfortunately, this year two things prevent it. Firstly, the scale of the income drop this year is far beyond anything we have faced over recent years, something we would need much longer than a single year to replace. The second thing is that until the pandemic has passed we have no way of generating money in the way we have in the past.
That leaves us with only one option we can legally take: cutting our spending to match the councils income.
For the first time, members of both Labour and the Conservatives agreed to work together on this budget, to get the town through this crisis.
We considered all the options.
We looked at all the alternatives.
Then we asked the public what they thought.
The budget consultation we conducted received the most responses the council has ever received on a consultation before, a real success given how limited our opportunities for contacting residents.
Two-thirds of the savings which have been made are back office savings. For the remaining frontline cuts we followed the priorities expressed by residents during the consultation.
Unsurprisingly, for those affected, the cuts we eventually proposed remain unpopular. I do not doubt that they face a loss, one I would really wish we didn’t have to cause, but we simply do not have that option.
Regardless, when we received surprise Government funding at the end of last year we took the decision to reduce the impact of the proposed cuts this year and to maintain those services for as long as the council could afford.
But, it is not all doom and gloom. We will continue to invest heavily in new council housing this year, which is funded differently to council services, providing much needed new affordable housing for many long-term residents.
We will also be investing over £77m in capital improvements in key parts of the town and council’s infrastructure this year and co-ordinating far more on behalf of and in partnership with other organisations.
And, as always, we will work to find improvements to the way we provide services within our existing budget, to meet the needs and aspirations of our residents
This budget sets the council on sound financial footing for the next year and, while things are tough right now, I fully believe Crawley and its council have far better times ahead. It’s now our job as councillors to go out and deliver it.