Crawley’s Cabinet is meeting tonight to decide the budget they’ll be proposing to Full Council in a couple of weeks’ time. The Budget takes months to form, with officers starting the process of putting a new one together almost as soon as the previous one has passed.
Given the failure of the Conservative administration to pass their own Local Plan–potentially the most important decision the council had to take before 2030–there is a real possibility that should Labour oppose the Budget it won’t go through. While we wait to see the final version the Cabinet will propose to Full Council, Labour councillors who sat on the Budget Advisory Group (which reviews existing budget proposals but cannot suggest any of its own) have already removed a number of proposals we are not comfortable with.
At this point the draft budget really just aims for three things: 1) balancing income and expenditure for this year no matter what the costs, 2) spending the remains of the extensive capital reserves Labour left them 3) freezing council tax. The issue with the Budget is less what is in it and more what isn’t. Sure, now that the funding for a Council Tax freeze is baselined into the council’s Revenue Support Grant freezing tax can make sense, but other than that what is the Budget actually proposing? What is the ongoing purpose of this Conservative administration? What was true in the summer remains true long after their appointment of a new Leader, this is an administration which is in office but out of control.
It’s a pity, because there’s a lot the council can achieve even in a time of cuts. On the Budget alone there is much which could be done to limit the impact of cuts, obviously there are efficiencies which can be made (our policy process has identified a number with little to no impact on frontline services) but savings aren’t the only way to balance a budget and we must do more to raise council income without passing the cost onto residents.
An organisation of the size and nature of the council has access to resources which through commercialisation could generate a significant revenue stream, this is currently being explored by other authorities and last month I attended a Local Government Association conference dedicated entirely to discussing the opportunities. If successful, any new pound raised would be a pound which does not have to be cut, raise enough revenue and the council will be able to spend more on services.
Much of the cost-saving attention has gone on the council’s ‘transformation’ process. But real structural reform council cannot be achieved in a single year, which is why rather than the year-in, year-out approach to balancing the budget we should aim to balance the budget over several years and in the process ensure that while services cost less they remain sustainable. Any use of the reserves (as is hidden in the existing budget proposals) should be coupled alongside a new policy committing the council to build up the revenue reserves once austerity comes to an end.
Through the neighbourhood forums we could even look into the potential for more participatory budgeting, as has worked effectively in Porto Alegre for 25 years, empowering communities to decide the spending priorities for their own neighbourhoods.
All that’s without even looking at all the potential for policies which benefit residents while remaining revenue-neutral. Even in austerity, with enough imagination and drive much can be accomplished. That’s the problem with the council of the day a ‘lack of purpose’, the Budget is supposed to be about more than just making x balance y, it’s about outlining who the town is and where we are going and it is clear from this Budget that we are going nowhere. I believe that with time and vision we can build a council that is on people’s side but it’s going to take much more than a couple of budget amendments to even start the process of getting the council where it needs to be.