This Thursday the council will decide the amount of Council Tax residents will pay as part of the debate about the budget for 2016/17. If it seems like I have been talking about the budget for many months it’s because of the open and transparent way in which the Council has to work. We must balance the ever-increasing demand for services, the changes in government policy, new laws and the reduction in government grants, and do so in a way that gives you a chance to comment.
We published the consultation budget at the beginning of December last year and I am grateful for all those who have sent in their views. If you look at the report Cabinet considered on 10th February, we devoted a lot of time to summarising and reflecting on those comments. I would like to remind people that a consultation is not a referendum; it is part of the evidence Councillors must take into account.
One issue that has arisen is the government announcement that Swindon will receive just over £820k each year for the next two years.
Some may be tempted to use this money to abandon some of the more challenging decisions in this year’s budget, and the medium term financial strategy. Already I have heard some people suggest spending the entire 2016/17 allocation two or three times over. Sadly, no one making such proposals ever seems to ask what happens in two years’ time.
I am not going to recommend this. It is quite clear that over the next few years the demand for adult social care, public health, and protecting vulnerable children is only going to increase. It would at best be shortsighted to use this transitional money to prop up services for two years. As we know from our daily lives, delaying tough decisions usually does not help. There is no pot of gold that will miraculously appear to pay for all our Council services that we might want.
Instead, Cabinet will be recommending to Council that we use this money largely to help pay for the changes in the way we provide services so that they are sustainable for a number years, not just the next two. This is the policy we have been following since 2007/8 and it has served Swindon well. Most of the changes we introduced, and which some people bitterly opposed at the time, are now accepted, such as transferring the leisure centres to a not-for-profit organisation, or re-introducing charges for green waste collections.
Lastly, I would like to pay tribute to the Council’s finance team. Even with all the pressures, last minute changes in grants and uncertainties about demand, as councillors we have benefited from accurate projections from them. Not all local authorities are as lucky.