Monday, 25 February 2013

Your guide to the most important Council meeting of the year, the budget

We have the full Council budget meeting on Tuesday this week. This does what it says on the tin and is the most important meeting of the year – everything else happens within the budget envelope which is set tomorrow.

Given that the budget report runs to 169 pages this isn't the most accessible bit of Council business for residents to engage with. The full report can be found here:

In order to try and make it more accessible I will try and provide a few headlines and page numbers below.

The total budget for 2013/14 is £130.9 million – see page 161 for last year's budget breakdown and this year's budget, the following pages have it broken down by directorate.

The budget contains £13.4 million worth of savings (achieved through cuts and increasing income through raising charges etc) forced on us mainly through cuts from the Tory led government, but also from Labour's reluctance to raise council tax earlier. There is a summary of the savings proposals by directorate over the coming years on page 51 and then the following pages break it down by directorate. Last year we had to make savings of £12.6 million. The year before it was £18.8 million. The latest prediction is that government funding for Councils will have been cut by 32% by 2014/15.

This is a more risky budget than previous years with the number of risk points rising from 142 to 167.

90 posts will go this year. We have lost 573 posts since 2010. This is 18% of the workforce – excluding schools. Still lots of work to do though!

The biggest directorate is the Directorate of Education and Social Services and Housing (DESSH). Some of the areas which will be negatively impacted by the cuts include:

"There will be fewer staff working on community safety issues like antisocial behaviour. Although essential work will still be covered, this may have a negative impact on continuing to make Reading a safer place to live and work in." – See page 59

"Transport for older people and people with disabilities will be reviewed and although we will continue to provide this vital support; some journey times are likely to be longer." – See page 3

"Money that was used to provide housing support for vulnerable people will be cut meaning that people for whom this help is an important part of allowing them to live independently will not get support with issues like household management and budgeting." – See page 3

"Enforcing SEN (special educational needs) home to school transport eligibility policy" – see page 61. This one takes a bit of interpretation as little explanation is given. Simply put, this money is being reduced, so with new cases or when existing cases are reviewed there will be less money to spend helping children with special educational needs get to an appropriate school. Rather than changing the policy to fit the commonsense approach which has historically been used, the current policy will be stuck to more closely.

Last year – when there were elections – Labour opposed our call for a Council tax increase. We argued that this was necessary to protect public services on which we all depend, especially the vulnerable and to give the Council more financial security in the medium term. This year – no elections – Labour are choosing to put Council tax up, but the increase limit which triggers a referendum has been reduced from 3.5% to 2%. So Labour is proposing a 1.9% Council tax increase. See page 11 for more information. Those notorious lefties in Wokingham are doing the same.

To sum up, against the austerity backdrop benefits are being cut, unemployment is high, poverty is on the increase. In short need and demand for services is going up. Yet, the Tory led government continues to force more cuts on councils weakening their ability to deliver public services for us all. Looking to the future, the Council is getting to the end of savings that can be made through efficiencies. Cracks are starting to show in the form of services being nibbled away. Unless the government has a radical change of mind in the near future we will be losing whole chunks of front-line service.

Reading and other councils need to work together, to say' enough' and to get this message across to the Tory led government.

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