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

March 5, 2016 8:51 PM
In East Gosforth

Speaking at the Budget meeting, East Gosforth Councillor Peter Leggott said :

Once again we have not really been supplied with a proper budget document but "Summary of Proposed Cuts and Reductions to Services in 2016/17" I hope that our amendments attempt to introduce a much more imaginative of dealing with how we raise and spend the money available to us.
Of course, we all accept that we have faced significant cuts in our government support and we, on this side, would not disagree that such cuts have not been proportionate or fair to Newcastle. However, I agree with Councillor Huddart that our colleagues opposite seem to think that the world began in 2010 when the Coalition came to power. I can remember the General Election of that year when all the parties were vying to announce who could make the biggest cuts to expenditure following the major financial crisis which lead to a massive annual deficit and a huge level of debt. Cuts were inevitable, whoever was elected to power that year.
I feel very strongly that this reduction in resources should not just be met with more "salami slicing" but with a imaginative and progressive way of looking at how the Council carries out its work. For example, I was very excited when I heard of the work of the Interim Director of Commercial Development. This was just the sort of "left field" thinking that was required to come up with imaginative ways of using scarce resources better. I hope this work will now be developed and not sidelined or forgotten.
Surely the time has now come to grasp the potential for more shared services? No-one is more proud of being a Novocastrian than I am; I was born and bred in Newcastle, I spent most of my working life here and I raised my family here. But we must not confuse local pride with parochialism. Shared Services are widespread in other parts of public service, notably the Health Service, so why not here?
I could go on - have we really reached our limit in reducing utility costs? Can we not push to improve our recycling rates?
Lord Mayor, let me finish by mentioning my grandson who I took to school this morning. He is now a couple of weeks short of his fifth birthday and he is embarking on his school career in Newcastle. I would really hope that he can now enjoy the type of city that I experienced, as did his father - a safe, clean city with a wide range of facilities such as parks and open spaces, swimming baths, public libraries, cultural venues and then employment opportunities. I do not believe that this continued policy of cuts and more cuts will achieve this. Why not make the current situation an opportunity to make progress rather than simply to produce a list of cuts?

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.