The microphones which were constantly switching themselves off at last week’s council meeting must have had expert attention in the meantime because the sound was perfectly clear last night when people spoke into them, and most did.
After spending no more than a few seconds on the preliminary formalities the council leader immediately began her explanation of the current budgetary situation. Make no mistake, it is dire but Teresa O’Neill OBE (Oratorical Best Ever?) explained it very clearly if somewhat boastfully.
She said she had been elected “because we are known for sound financial management of the borough” which raised the first of the evening’s many belly laughs.
The theme was “you can’t spend what you haven’t got, you have to live within your means and statutory responsibilities have to come first”.
Foolishly perhaps, she then referred to the 2015 General Election result and the plight of Greece. More jeers!
The government grant has reduced and responsibilities have increased due to more young people and more old people. There is an “element of crystal ball gazing but we have a good record”.
“Our long term plan is to be self-financing” so “the growth agenda is really important”. It was at this point the scare-mongering began with the claim that council tax would have been doubled since 2006 if nothing else had been done. A figure which my own calculations suggest is not far wrong.
“No alternative [strategies] came forward so we are where we are. There are no quick fixes, we have done the things that don’t impact residents, we’ve tried to protect the front line as much as possible, we have sought efficiencies, cut staff, frozen wages and cut allowances. We are looking to reduce councillors and moved to this site which saves us two million pounds a year in running costs.”
After a mere five minutes and 45 seconds she came to an end after making a fairly compelling case. Would it be nitpicking to remind people that the poorer members of society have had a raw deal from everything from cuts to Citizen’s Advice and Voluntary Services grants to the imposition of council tax on benefit claimants? But such people are not generally Tory voters.
Wages have gone up a bit and going up in excess of inflation again and new councillor allowances have been introduced, but never mind that, we are supposed to have forgotten by now.
Director of Finance Alison Griffin took up the same theme but more detailed and technical.
The last financial year saw overspending reduced but there are “unprecedented financial challenges ahead. Between 2010 and 2018 government funding will have fallen by nearly 60%.”
As we have heard so often before, Children’s Services constantly put the budget under strain as does the aging population and the homeless. “There will be a £47 million funding gap by 2020/21. The recent budget, in particular the Living Wage, has not helped but the precise details won’t be known until near Christmas.
The Finance Director said the savings identified since 2010 were £74 million and £50 million had already been delivered. The further savings proposals up for discussion could save between fifteen and twenty one million pounds subject to consultation.
“There are some very difficult decisions to be faced. Use of reserves to fill any revenue gap is not sustainable.” It’s a bit like selling off the family silver and is definitely best avoided. Ironic that.
The Director spoke for precisely 13 minutes in suitably solemn tones and the recording put me in mind of a Captain whose First Mate had driven the ship on to the rocks with no hope of early rescue and very limited provisions on board to stave off an early death, as she laid down the rules for the crew and passengers’ only hope of survival.
Almost needless to say, cabinet member Don Massey’s follow up speech was a bit of an anti-climax. He spoke for six minutes and covered the same familiar ground.
He wasted time by making an unnecessary reference to the Local and General Election results thereby alienating some members of the audience he was attempting to convince. One of several Bexley councillors with a tendency to place political gamesmanship above listening to residents.
He went back to 2006 for his lecture on council tax levels and repeated the leader’s assertion that doing nothing since then would have doubled council tax. Instead it has gone up 12% he said.
The recording reveals that to do nothing for the next five years would push up council tax by 55%, which represents a correction to last night’s quick blog written solely from memory.
Following councillor Massey’s address the other cabinet members took their turn to set the scene for the proposed savage programme of additional cuts, to which BiB will return another day.