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Bonkers Blog March 2013

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1 March (Part 1) - Finance, fiction fraud or fib?

What would you do if you absolutely had to get your expenditure down by £25 a week? A regular drinker might reduce his consumption by a pint of beer a day. A 4x4 owner might swap it for a Fiesta. Either would go a long way towards establishing a new more economical way of life and permanently lower outgoings.

Bexley Conservatives announced nearly three years ago that they wanted to see £35 million of savings and set about attacking services to adult carers and transport for disabled children on the one hand and filling fountains with dirt on the other. At nearly every council meeting we are told that Bexley is on course to save £35 million when comparing March 2011 with March 2014.

Congratulations Bexley council. You’ve successfully controlled the extravagances of the past and are the toast of every grateful council tax payer. Right? Well probably not, this is Bexley remember. It doesn’t look at figures as you and I do.

I once swapped a large mortgaged house out in the sticks where a season ticket to London now costs £425 a month (†) for a small house I owned outright in London. It saved a lot of money. At the same time I got rid of an old car which did 25 miles a gallon if I was careful. Two children left university and got themselves decent jobs - this was twenty odd years ago. I’m still not spending money on those things and the total savings reduced my expenditure by a figure not far removed from the average UK income. Why am I not rich?

LandfillTen or so years ago Bexley council stopped piling all its rubbish into landfill and as a consequence doesn’t have to pay the tax. It moved with the times just as my own life did. If I had an accountant he wouldn’t be harping on about me not paying a fortune to South West Trains but Bexley still claims to save £3 million a year by not living in the past and dumping rubbish in landfill.

Bexley’s fantasists seem to think that money they saved in the past accumulates for ever but refuse collection costs actually creep upwards not down and the fact our great grandfathers ripped up the Abbey Wood to Erith tram line won’t help pay today’s bills.

Where else has Bexley saved money? The dog fouling warden has gone - £15,000 a year in the doggie bag. No more public loos - forty grand in the porcelain pot. Produce PDFs instead of paper in the Social Care department - £14,000 in a brown envelope. Do away with parking meters - £30,000 in the slot.

They are all one offs difficult to repeat but if you accumulate the figures year on year for long enough they could end up saving more than Bexley’s total expenditure. Just like my season ticket and mortgage from the 1980s would now exceed my total expenditure if I still counted them as savings. My accounts, such as they are, don’t feature season tickets. In Bexley however things are different. The dirt in the fountain is still worth twenty grand a year. For how long do they intend to keep counting that in?

The only real measure of any saving over time is a comparison of total outgoings, before and after. It is those outgoings which dictate the required income. Nothing else counts.

How has Bexley been doing two thirds of the way through a period in which it said it would save £35 million? One might guess it will have reduced spending by around £10 million in the first year and improve on it in succeeding years until it gets down to a £35 million reduction compared with the bad old days.

What has happened in practice? It’s not difficult to find out because Appendix B of Bexley’s Budget Book helpfully lists all the savings attributable to each Cabinet portfolio. There are some comparison complications because Peter Craske’s Public Realm and Safety (+) responsibilities were redistributed to Katie Perrior (Children’s Services) and Gareth Bacon (Environment) following his brush with the law, however it is possible to deduce that the numbers belie the fine words.

Claimed savings
to March 2013
Actual Spend
Projected Spend
Adult’s Services £7,264,000 £61,067,000 £61,000,000
Children’s Services &
Community Safety
£2,458,000 £28,720,000
£2,750,000 +
Economic Dev. & Regeneration £984,000 £14,061,000 £12,100,000
Education £2,878,000 £16,766,000 £12,800,000
Environment & Public Realm £3,066,000 £38,931,000 £38,600,000
Finance & Corporate Services £5,850,000 £12,288,000 £13,500,000
Leisure £1,111,000 £12,316,000 £11,500,000
Grand Total £23,611,000 £186,899,000 £180,900,000

If you add up all the claimed savings, no water in the fountain for the past couple of years, no toilets on Broadway, any number of penny pinching economies, you might be forgiven for thinking that after two years and £23 million saved, the £35 million saving target is within our grasp - and maybe it is. If that’s how you do your arithmetic. But look at what is being spent. Not much of a reduction is it? All those painful cut backs to services but the money is still going out almost as fast as ever. Maybe Bromley is more transparent with its arithmetic.

Interesting that there is a 24% reduction in education spending. It must be all those head teachers rushing headlong to Academy status to get away from the clutches of Bexley council. But the tax payer still pays, so that’s four million which isn’t really a saving at all. The tax payer is just paying into a different pot.

Figures taken from Budget Book 2012/13 and Budget Book 2014 (draft).

From an idea by Nicholas Dowling.

† £19 a quarter in 1961 when £425 was more than I earned in a year.


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