Last week, Crawley Borough Council voted unanimously to support the Cabinet’s Budget Strategy. The strategy follows the approach Labour has pursued over recent years and which we put forward in our manifesto at this year’s local elections: prioritise finding new income over cuts and empower those on the frontline to make their services more efficient.
This takes place against a difficult backdrop. Our budget has nearly halved over ten years and funding from government has all but disappeared. Councils now rely almost entirely upon what they raise locally: Council Tax, Retained Business Rates and creatively opening up new revenue streams on the ground.
The fact that Crawley has managed to adapt to this challenge with such a minimal impact to service delivery borders upon the miraculous and while I would like to take the credit for it, in truth it’s a testament to unreasonable levels of hard work demanded from public sector workers and the incredible levels of commitment they bring to their jobs. You’d struggle to find any company on the planet, no matter how bloated, which could adapt that effectively to so drastic a cut in revenue. Particularly when you consider local authorities were already rated the most efficient part of the public sector before the cuts began.
While it’s hoped the end of grant funding will offer councils greater independence—so as long as the Government keeps its word, shifting so much of the council’s revenue to sources closely correlated with growth leaves local authorities much more vulnerable to economic shocks. This is particularly true given that councils face increasing in cost pressures when household incomes drop.
The long-term impact of the referendum on the UK economy remains to be seen, yet on current projections the loss of economic confidence will increase the council’s budget gap by half over the next 3 years. Be under no illusion how challenging this is. No more easy wins remain to be found. It will be incumbent upon us as a council to find entirely new ways to deliver with declining revenue or face the loss of services residents rely upon.