One of local councillors’ biggest responsibilities is passing the annual budget. The budget sets out what the council will spend on local services, where the money comes from and any plans for new investment.
Despite big cuts to the council’s grant from the government, the budget passed by the council last week involving no borrowing, it maintained services and contained a below inflation council tax increase, the lowest in Sussex.
That took a lot of work. When Labour regained control of the council we ended the Tories’ use of reserves to pay for vanity projects, something which cost residents much of the £100m Labour saved last time it was in control. Instead we decided to use the money to pay for things which would either help save or earn more money, helping pay for services. Investing in things like new facilities at Tilgate Park and K2 are good for residents and the additional income helps cover some of what we’ve lost from the Government.
Making services more efficient takes time, particularly if you want to avoid sudden budget cuts. So instead of obsessing over one-year budgets we’ve taken a longer term approach, focusing on the big picture in a way which allows changes to happen at a pace which maintains services. For the last two years we’ve managed to generate budget surpluses, saving money which will help cover a bigger cut from the Government coming next year without rushing through efficiencies in a way which would make residents suffer.
Lastly, with money tight we decided to focus on the things which make the biggest difference to people’s lives: jobs, housing and the local community. The budget invests almost £120m in new affordable housing, puts money into new schemes to help people access better careers and enables the council to experiment with improved ways of maintaining our neighbourhoods, recognising how big an impact that has on people’s lives.
Next year’s budget will be challenging, but by taking a more educated approach, one focused on the practical rather than the ideological and looking to the long term we can meet that challenge without compromising the services residents depend upon.