Thursday, 3 November 2011

Budget Scrutiny - An object lesson in obfuscation

To say that today's day of scrutiny of the Cornwall Council budget was frustrating is perhaps an understatement. Many members left the session as unenlightened on the proposed budget as they entered it.

The idea is that the council takes two days to hear presentations on each section of the budget and that councillors have the chance to ask questions on the detailed proposals.

The problem is that most of the presentations spent all their time talking about the past year and no time at all about what is proposed for the future. And far too many of the questions got the answer that the details had not yet been worked out. It's important to understand why we are where we are and the cuts already made, but if that means that there is no time for discussion on the future then it is a mistake.

As I blogged previously, having an early budget is fine - but only if the council is ready with all the details that they would normally have by February when authority budgets are normally set.

The start of the day was an introduction by Chief Executive Kevin Lavery. Mr Lavery gave a very positive report of the budget process to date and how the authority coped with the need for cuts this year. He gave a guarantee that there would be no additional cuts beyond what was agreed last year. However he seemed to run out of time before he got the chance to mention the £2.5 million hole in the bus budget or the need to adjust the parking budget halfway through the year because of a massive under-performance. Indeed, as he was giving a rendition of 'If...' by Rudyard Kipling he was asked to leave the stage by the chairman.

The day was also not helped by a number of members not having been sent the paperwork and that the paperwork that did exist appeared not to have any page numbers.

However much the senior officers might want to concentrate on the biggest of big pictures, most councillors know that the details also matter. When a series of cuts (such as to public toilets) is made halfway through the year, it is the local councillors who get it in the neck and at a session such as today's we want the details of what service changes were are likely to face in the coming year.

Some of the more interesting exchanges came during the session on localism. This is a service which is struggling to keep up with demand. It's an area where the council was disastrously under-performing for the first two years but has now changed its attitude and is heading in the right direction fast. It is working on transferring 25 packages of services to local town and parish councils which want to take them on and will take on more packages as and when they complete the ones already in hand.

But the details on services such as libraries, disabled facilities grants and so on were sadly missing.

To sum up the day, here's a comment from lunchtime:

"What's for lunch?"
"Sandwiches"
"What sort of sandwiches?"
"You don't need to know. All you need to know is that they are sandwiches and they will fill you up."

1 comment:

StAustellAdam said...

Good account of what must have been a frustrating day for many Councillors.

Presumably they will go home tonight to digest the details (along with the un-named sandwiches) and prepare a great many questions for day two tomorrow.

Here's hoping that some of the trickier questions are answered satisfactorily.