Last night at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) we spent an hour looking at the councilâ€™s budget. This is due to go to cabinet next Tuesday and then will be signed off by the full council on 28th.
Council finances are complex and opaque but you can probably get 90% of everything you want to know about them by studying this document (or more properly set of documents). Take a look at the papers here, here and here. They are hard work but will reward your effort.
The main headline is that Labour are freezing council tax for the second year running but bitching that central government is only funding the freeze for one year. This is good news for residents.
With this budget the council has pretty much finished the job of taking Â£85 million of savings. Although Labour are calling this number a government cut the actual cut is only some Â£50 odd million. Labour is taking an additional Â£30 million for its own purposes and running budget surpluses which it is putting into capital projects such as the notorious Southall car park â€“ more on that later.
At OSC there was lots of doom and gloom from Ian Oâ€™Donnell, the councilâ€™s executive director of Corporate Resources. As the councilâ€™s chief financial officer it is his job to be risk averse and to see the downside of things. One bit of good news that, unaccountably, the council officers and Labour councillors did not highlight is that whilst the council is having to shell out Â£300 million for school building, driven mainly by rising birth rates, some Â£200 million of this is being provided by central government in spite of Labourâ€™s flimflam about the cancellation of its outrageously wasteful BSF scheme.
A great new innovation in this yearâ€™s budget is a complete review of all of the councilâ€™s fees and charges, see Appendix 12 here. This idea goes back to a meeting I had with Ian Oâ€™Donnell in July 2009. I suggested that there was no overall management of the councilâ€™s fees and charges on an annual basis. This appendix is a welcome attempt to pull that altogether.
Scrolling through appendix 12 the thing that catches my eye is CPZ charges, at the top of page 27. Going up again in April. People in the short hour zones will wonder why their charges is going up by 12.5% whilst the all day zones are only going up by 3%. Is there an unstated convergence policy? I am sure you will come up with some more observations.