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Labour raises Newcastle's Council Tax by 3.95% despite Liberal Democrat opposition

March 4, 2016 8:23 PM
In Parklands

Councillor Pauline Allen said in the debate : I promised Parklands residents to express comments they have made to me recently.
The amount of council tax paid by Parklands residents is large but many people in the ward feel that they get little in the way of service from the council. For example, many of our footpaths are in urgent need of attention and streets that we as a ward cttee had started work on, or had planned to start work on, are deteriorating and we now have little money to repair them so we worry that they will cause problems for residents. Living in a more expensive house does not prevent you from a broken bone if the footpath is uneven, in need of being replaced and it causes you to fall. We'd like to see money spent on repairs so avoiding these falls.
And whilst the value of many properties in the ward may be high some of the residents living in them are on fixed incomes and increases in council tax will hit them hard. And this increase tonight will cause problems for them year on year, it's not just about this year.
For the past couple of years we've had major disruption on the highways in Gosforth, causing delays and massive inconvenience, and improvements that we've asked for on the grounds of safety haven't been forthcoming. Many residents feel that the Broadway roundabout junctions are unsafe and we, the ward councillors, would like to see improvements made to them to ensure the safety of all who use them whether on foot, cycle or in a bus or car. But I've been told that there's no money for these safety improvements and that's a real shame.
And now our local library is under attack from an administration who respond to every problem by saying "it's not our fault". The Labour administration need to find ways of responding to the needs of all of our residents. Surely you can recognise the importance of having library opening hours that allow people to use the service. For example for those who are job seeking, children and students who are studying and people who use the library as a meeting place where they mix with friends and share interests such as the knitting group I talked to recently.
Everyone knows that there isn't a lot of money around at present but continually blaming the government instead of working out ways to run services for the benefit of all residents won't get any of us anywhere.

The Liberal Democrats proposed 8 detailed amendments to save money to spend on essential services, built around the following analysis. All were voted down by the Labour Party.

1. The total cost for the last year (2014/15) of gas, water, road fuel and electricity for the Council was just over £12m. The Carbon Trust reports that 10% can be saved from business bills using low or no-cost interventions and up to 30% with modest intervention. Central Government took 13% off their energy bill in a single year as part of the 10:10 campaign. We have direct evidence of organisations the North East reducing by 10% in a single year. In addition, energy and fuel prices are falling dramatically, the council is closing / transferring management for buildings; staff headcount is much-reduced; refurbishment of the civic centre will presumably increase energy efficiency. We propose a target of cutting the Council's total utilities' and fuel costs by 10% by delegating accountability for bills and savings through behaviour change and work practice changes to the lowest level possible in the organisation - as best-practice organisations do. Work units would be incentivised against their own budgets - i.e. they keep a proportion to reinvest in other service improvement. Either way, we estimate a potential saving of just under £1m (assuming schools keep their own savings). We can allow for costs associated with implementing the changes and therefore assume a saving in 2016/16 of £800,000, usable elsewhere. We propose that these savings be used as follows: £600,000 towards keeping library opening hours at present levels and £200,000 to keep ward budgets at the current 2015/16 level.

2. On recycling, Newcastle is 3% below the national recycling rate of 44%. We propose that we set a modest target to reaching the national average - which ought to be increasing anyway. 3% of our 148,000T collected is 4,440T. Using the Landfill Tax rate of £82/T as a conservative estimate of what can be saved by recycling (there will be a reduced gate fee on top of this), this gives a saving of £364,000 per annum. We propose that this saving be used to increase the budget for commissioned youth services (to be made available more widely across the city and not just in selected wards)

3. Delete position of Assistant Chief Executive - Public Safety and Regulation to go to Communities; Economic Development to Investment and Development (transitioning to Combined Authority in part or whole); Democratic Services to Resources - also Policy, Communications and Performance - or direct to Chief Executive: savings of salary, oncosts, office etc assumed at £200,000. Many large councils have a senior team of CE plus four Executive Directors. Former position of Assistant Chief Executive had been deleted in the past but then came back again. This is nothing personal about the individual whose skills could be used at the Combined Authority/LEP/Regional Mayor. We propose that this saving be used to maintain the Older Persons' Handyperson/Prevention Service (funding is an exact match)

4. Delete position of one Policy and Communication Business Partner based in the Leader's Office. This position did not exist under a Liberal Democrat Council. Saving, with oncosts - £40,000 estimate. This is a proposal made by the Opposition in previous years. We propose that the saving be used to maintain the funding to the peer-led (non-statutory) mental health support and to restore the cut proposed to the Warmzone Health to Warmth budget (the two make an exact match).

5. A report in February to Health Scrutiny on the two year wellbeing fund revealed £158, 862 unallocated. We therefore assume that this underspend can be used for other projects in the same way that the Council is intending to mitigate CAB and other funding. We propose that the £158,000 be used as follows: £90,000 to restore the reduced investment in road safety (Appendix 2, page 6) and the balance to be offered to the Friends of Elswick Pool as a year one subsidy to help re-open the pool.

6. Start implementing the report by the former Interim Director of Commercial Development. We are led to believe that his as yet unpublished report outlined potential savings rising to £30m in three years. The Council's progress on commercialisation is very disappointing, with a predicted £1.6m budget underachievement in the current year. There nothing transparently in the 2016/17 budget for additional income from commercialisation. We think that this is a pressing need. We are proposing the immediate implementation of the first tranche of proposals in the commercialisation report and estimate £5m for the first year (includes part-year savings as implementation takes place). We are also calling for the publication of this report - at least to Scrutiny and if necessary initially on pink if there are sensitive issues. We propose that the savings be used for the following purposes:
Remove the need to increase council tax other than for the extra 2% permitted for social care
Maintain the Older Person's Dementia Care resource centre at Byker Lodge as a dedicated, council-run facility
Maintain the level of current grant to the Citizens Advice Bureau (whilst also exploring the merging of the CAB team and the Council's Welfare Rights advisory service)
Restore funding to older people's lunch clubs.
Maintain support to the Mental Health Recovery team.
Maintain current levels of support for adults for adults living in their own homes
Maintain the number of adult social work staff and the Children's Social care workforce.

7. Shared Services. There is still next to no progress being made on Shared Services by this authority. In fact, a written response to a Scrutiny question in January stated that the 2016/17 budget included no savings at all from the sharing of services. We believe that targets now need to be set for economies from shared services or we will continue to make no progress. We propose a modest target of £1m for the budget year 2016/07 and expect to see much more ambitious targets/progress for the years ahead. A start should be made with the Economic Development function (which as we have previously stated, should be merged in whole or part with others in the Combined Authority area) and the Electoral Registration service. We propose that the savings be directed into Local Services to restore as much as possible previous levels of street cleaning and parks and grounds maintenance.

8. We have noted major changes in reserves that seem to have been implemented completely "under the radar" and judging by the reaction at Cabinet without the awareness or understanding of Cabinet Members. Last year's budget paper estimated that reserves at 31 March 2016 would be £53m. In fact they are now estimated to be £91.9m, £25m up on the actual figure for 31.3.2016. The financial resilience reserve has been £4m for several years and is now estimated to be £5m at 31 March (where was the authorisation/case for this?) and rising to £6m by the end of next March. The Strategic Reserve (directorate commitments and major one-off costs) has risen from £6.8m estimate to £24.4m; the transformation reserve has risen from £2m to £5.4m and there is a completely new "Treasury Management Reserve" of £3.5m. We note and acknowledge increasing risks on business rate localisation and the Collection Fund reserve now at £9.5m (last year's estimate £2m). We note that reserves are predicted to fall to £74.3m by 31 March 2017 but that this is still over £20m more than was previously estimated. We accept that these are one-off funds if otherwise applied to spending but we propose that these reserves be trimmed by £5m in total. We propose that the one-off benefit be used for immediate investment into highways and footpath improvements.

In seconding the amendments, Cllr Robin Ashby said :

My colleagues are speaking about a wide range of important cuts, our alternative suggestions, and our opposition to continuing Government downwards pressure on local government spending.
Nevertheless, there's a ton of money going through the City's accounts, and further efficiency savings are possible. We've suggested some, and that's when we're on the outside.
Let's be clear. Labour is in charge, Labour has made the choices, these are Labour cuts.
There's two in particular about which I feel particularly strongly. The running down of our libraries about which Cllr Cott presented a petition, and the near-destruction of the devolved ward committee and grants structure.
Labour has shown a lack of imagination by slashing Library hours and whole day closures across the City. Sacking part time employees will save very little, but the cost to local people who need these islands of knowledge is incalculable.
Another tiny saving with huge adverse impact is Labour's assault on devolved democracy in Newcastle.
We've known for years that whatever you mouth about power to the people, in your hearts you want all power to the Supreme Soviet. At Parklands Ward Committee we can get more local people attending than come here to the Civic Centre for many Council meetings. And they're not gagged or ejected for expressing an opinion. We positively welcome questions, comments and suggestions.
But now, there'll only be one meeting a year. This is an affront to those we represent.
The spending by ward committees has been less than one 5 thousandth of the City's budget - but we have been using it to empower local people, and to encourage them to build small co-operative communities. For example, our local Three Mile Allotments is now planting and maintaining flower tubs on the Great North Road - a key gateway to the City - because we helped them with a grant and because Councillors sought their co-operation to do so.
We make the words real. Labour makes the promises hollow.