Monday, 2 September 2013

Cornwall's budget - briefing members and staff

Today I have been briefing fellow councillors and the authority's staff on the budget for the next financial year.

Cornwall faces some pretty huge challenges. We have to make savings of £23.9 million next year in addition to those which were already agreed of £19 million.

And we have to save approximately £196 million by the end of 2018/19 - four years away. (This number depends on various government decisions and so will vary a bit, but probably not massively).

We can't pretend that we can make all those savings just by trimming services a bit. So called 'salami slicing' will trim services until they are virtually worthless. Nor can we pretend that we can solve the problem by paying officers a bit less, by cutting the number of councillors or by cutting waste. Of course we will cut waste wherever we find it. And we can debate cuts to councillor numbers or officer pay. But between them they won't save more than 1-2% of the amount needed.

Instead, we are asking the people of Cornwall to decide what they want their council to look like in four years time. We can try to preserve the services that people think are most valuable, but that will be at the expense of other services changing out of all recognition or being cut completely. We want the people of Cornwall to tell us what our priorities should be.

We have published a first draft budget based on a 2% council tax rise. Given the new cuts passed down by the government over the last 12 months, that is what the cabinet thinks is the right balance. But we are open to suggestions both as to the right level of council tax and where the initial cuts should be made.

More details of the savings proposed are being published and debated over the next few weeks. You can have your say by attending one of 19 public meetings being held in every part of Cornwall.

In the meantime, I have also recorded a video for the council's staff and we are asking for their ideas as well.

This is what my Launceston colleague Jade Farrington has written on her facebook page:

The first draft of next year's budget was presented to Cornwall Councillors today. Officers and cabinet members stressed that it's exactly that - a first draft - and made it clear they were open to alternative suggestions as to how money can be raised and saved.

Cornwall Council's grant from central government has been massively reduced and the people of the duchy are faced with finding cuts of £196 million by 2018/19. When you consider that the council's entire net revenue budget is just over £525 million you can see the scale of it. We're talking about serious cuts and an end to some very valuable services. Cornwall Council can't avert this as local authorities legally have to balance their budgets. The only way it could do that and keep services at current levels is to put your council tax up by more than 20%. I haven't met anyone who wants that to happen and a rise of more than 2% would require a referendum of everyone in Cornwall. That referendum would not be won and it would cost the council up to £1 million to run it, meaning an extra £1 million of cuts would follow the inevitable "no" vote.

This all equates to £24 million less for services in the next financial year, assuming a council tax rise of just under the 2% threshold. If the authority freezes council tax then there will be around £1 million more cuts.

Understandably people are finding these huge figures hard to grasp. Lots have suggested cutting the pay of top council staff (some of whom receive six figure salaries) and councillors (who get just over £12,000). To put this in perspective, that would save around 1% of the total the council is being forced to cut.

Lots of people would also like to see the council charge more council tax to second home owners. Unfortunately the council is legally charging them all it can and is incredibly constrained by central government. Unbelievably, the council has 1,300 statutory duties as set out in edicts from Westminster. This means Cornwall Council has 1,300 things it has to spend your tax on, regardless of whether councillors or local people think they're a good idea.

This all makes for quite depressing reading, but everyone needs to be aware of what is coming. Some services you rely on may not exist in a year's time, so if you care then you need to make sure you make your case. The cabinet member for finance, Alex Folkes - Cornwall Councillor for Launceston Central, has organised 19 public meetings to give you the chance to tell him which services you would like to see protected and those you would (reluctantly or otherwise) be willing to see reduced or axed altogether. Arguing that all services must be protected simply isn't an option, for the reasons I've just outlined.

I know Alex is genuinely interested to hear your ideas, so please take 90 minutes of your evening on Wednesday, September 11th to go along to Launceston Town Hall at 6.30pm and have your say. Please share this poster to make others aware and start thinking about what you would like to protect and how we can raise the money needed to do that.

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