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

March 5, 2016 9:11 PM
In Dene

Criticising the proposal, Dene Ward Councillor Wendy Taylor said :

There is one issue that the Liberal Democrat group are in full agreement with Labour members about & that is the unfairness of the cuts imposed by the Tory Government & the blatant political manoeuvring that has led to Tory rural Councils getting the vast majority of the extra money to Councils. The scale of the cuts needed is appalling & the scrutiny meetings where we discussed the budget proposals were some of the most depressing I've attended in all my years on the Council.

However it has been very difficult for opposition members to scrutinise the proposals & come up with alternative options when the goalposts seem to change on an almost daily basis. At the cabinet meeting last week, there was no mention of the changes to the budget that had been announced to the press a few days earlier. Cllr McCarthy was unable to give details of proposals to support the CAB, yet now we're told its being funded with wellbeing money Again last week no-one was able to explain the unexpectedly high level of reserves.

As the opposition spokesperson for adult services, I am both delighted & relieved that the 2 issues I was most concerned about have been resolved. It is obviously good news that the CAB will not be closing its doors in October, but to me it is utterly incomprehensible that the ruling group ever considered putting the CAB at risk. This is an organisation that not only helps thousands of people each year struggling with a huge range of problems, but which also delivers gains each year to local people worth at least £11 million through benefit gains, debt write off & resolving consumer problems- and a large amount of that £11 million goes back into the local economy. Three years ago Newcastle Council became notorious as a Council willing to sacrifice its arts & culture. In fact "doing a Newcastle" became a byword for scrapping culture budgets. This year Labour Councillors have got close to leaving us as the only major City without a CAB & I'm not convinced that the reprieve will lead to a permanent solution, which is why we would like to explore a merger between the CAB & the Council's welfare rights advisory service.

The other issue of greatest concern was the proposed closure of Byker Lodge respite centre for people with dementia. This would undoubtedly have led to extra costs for the health service & the welcome but rather belated news that it will be jointly funded by the NHS & the Council is just the sort of shared service we want to see. There needs to be a lot more discussion with partners about other ways of co-funding health & social services to try to ensure we are not faced with further distressing cuts to front-line services next year. We do however believe that funding could be found this year to prevent closure of older people's lunch clubs that do so much to help prevent isolation & loneliness, to maintain support to the Mental Health Recovery team; Maintain current levels of support for adults living in their own homes & to Maintain the number of adult social work staff and the Children's Social care workforce. These are vital front line services & need to be protected .We would find the necessary funding by pushing forward rapidly with the commercialisation savings identified by John Lee in his report.

I'd like to go back to the under spent wellbeing fund. In previous budget debates, we have suggested using public health money for other health benefits, such as preventing the closure of swimming pools, but were told that was not possible. Now as is the way with many of our budget proposals, they are accepted a year or two later. I do find it worrying however to look at the wellbeing fund. When it was introduced I expressed concern about spreading the money so thinly across wards & how I felt it could be much more beneficial to health for the whole of the £400, 000 to be used for a larger scheme, for example fall prevention. My fears were confirmed when a report about the wellbeing fund came to Health Scrutiny. There have been 122 projects ranging from £31 to £13, 000 & the report admits that trying to evaluate estimate the impact each has had on the health of the population is incredibly difficult & time-consuming & goes on to say that by offering services in some wards that are not available in others, the potential exists to actually increase inequalities. The report also admits that there is concern over value for money & that this may not be the most cost effective way of delivering programmes. We would therefore use the remaining fund, which 3 weeks ago was £158,000, to provide a one year subsidy to keep open Elswick Pool, a project with definite health benefits.

Finally on shared services. We are told that there are no obvious opportunities for shared services & that the £1million savings we suggest can't be achieved. Yet other Councils have done exactly what we suggest. For example Liberal Democrat run Sutton shares many services with huge overall savings to the partners involved.

They share joint commissioning of Community Safety Services with the Metropolitan Police saving £10.5 million

They share the Payroll and employee database with Kingston, Richmond, Merton saving £10,000,000

A shared IT service with Kingston saves £4million

·HR services shared with Merton saves £1,300,000

·A joint waste partnership between Merton, Croydon, Kingston saves £600,000 & sharing the Adult Emergency Duty Team between Merton, Richmond, Kingston saves £200,000

If they can do it so could we. It just needs some political will & I think we're being very modest in suggesting savings of £1 million.

Of course the cuts are unfair & it's a difficult budget, but we believe Labour are making the wrong choices. Our proposals would allow us to avoid many of the proposed cuts in front line services & I urge Council to accept them

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.