Liberal Democrat Councillors in Newcastle will vote against the Labour Council’s budget and council tax increase at Wednesday’s meeting of the City Council.
Liberal Democrat councillors will speak against a number of the proposals in the budget, and in particular the closure of the visitor information centre, parking charges for blue badge holders, the cutting back of the night time noise service and the proposal to increase council tax.
Labour has switched its position on council tax. They promised to freeze it when they won control of the council - and a Government council tax freeze grant every year since has enabled them to do. Last year they said that hard-pressed residents should not have to pay extra council tax. What is so different this year? There's still a freeze grant on offer, and many councils are continuing to accept it. In Newcastle, freezing council tax would involve only a small shortfall of around £600,000 out of a controllable budget of over £500m, and in any event there is currently an underspend on this year's budget of £1.5m and rising, with little of the year remaining. When the Liberal Democrats were in control of Newcastle City Council between 2004 and 2011, our policy was to keep council tax at or below the rate of inflation - and we did it every year. Now inflation is close to zero, and the Labour Council is increasing council tax. It doesn't make sense.
No doubt the budget debate will be a re-run of the usual criticisms of the government that we've heard in the past few years. Yes, we agree that cuts have been unfairly applied - and we have said as much to government ourselves as well as supporting the council's consultation response to Government on the 2015/16 settlement. . However, it looks as though there will be further cuts no matter who wins the coming General Election. We want to see cuts applied as equal cash reductions, or at least equal percentage reductions.
However, Newcastle City Council still has £800m to spend each year on running its services - and over half a billion of it comes in money from the Government. The annual support grant may have been cut but other grants, adding up to over £373m, have actually been increased for this coming year. We don't hear much about this. We note that the council's budget report says "many of the savings have been achieved with minimal impact on services". They can't have it both ways.
Newcastle Council likes to make it out that the council's approach to the cuts has been innovative, and they have been transforming services. This couldn't be further from the truth. Most services are provided in the same old way, and each year budgets are just "salami-sliced". Now they are being cut to what is called "minimum credible level". Newcastle and neighbouring councils are behind what is going on elsewhere in the country when it comes to sharing services with others. We've said it before - why are there seven separate economic development teams in the seven council areas of the so-called "Combined Authority". Why not one approach to community safety through the Police and Crime Commissioner? Why not one approach to tourism? Why not one unit for electoral services across Tyne and Wear or the Combined Authority area? Why not share as much of legal, accounting, HR as is possible? Why not merge the separate housing companies that look after council houses - they all do much the same thing? Why not manage leisure and cultural facilities though one trust for a wider area? This would all produce big savings in management costs and overheads. We say it's time to give up the empires, end the duplication, cut the costs and support frontline services.
The council's targets for savings in utility costs are far too modest - there must be more challenging targets set.
Council tax payers don't just pay for council services but precepts for police and for fire and rescue services. We ask - why are there four fire and rescue authorities in our region when there is only one for the whole of Scotland? Why three different police authorities - all with their own managers, specialist, IT systems and overheads? It's time to set in train mergers that will save significant amounts of money.
Finally, we say that the Council's budget papers on the website make it almost impossible to see what, if any, changes have been made to the original budget proposals - why not? People are entitled to know what account has been taken of their comments