My budget speech at Kettering Borough Council

At Kettering Borough Council’s budget-setting meeting the Labour group proposed various alternatives including more street cleaning, better enforcement of dog mess, investigating the idea of a new swimming pool, trying to help the ongoing issues of fly tipping and the building of more council houses.

Our various priorities would have cost just over £300,000 the vast majority of which we found internally. However we did suggest a modest tax rise of just under 5p per week not so much to pay for these extra services but to protect the council’s finances because there are real financial problems heading the council’s way in a couple of years, and we are concerned that next year the administration will have no option but to bring in a big rise by not acting now. We would have preferred a measured and steady approach. A copy of my speech is below.

Alternative Proposals

I would like to move an amendment to Appendix D detailing Labour’s budget alternatives.

First of all can I say how different it is responding to the Borough Council’s proposed budget, compared to the County Council’s yesterday, because of the huge financial mess that they are in.

That’s not the case here, although there are some similarities and lessons to be learned.

Both councils have suffered from huge spending cuts, and both councils have worked hard to keep their rate of council tax low. But this has perhaps become an obsession, and with the County it’s definitely a factor in the mess they’re in, as acknowledged recently by their own Chief Exec.

KBC however have been lucky in that they have so far been protected from some of the worst cuts. But that is going to change.

Over the next few years the government is planning to increase cuts to Borough Councils and this will be a huge challenge for us.

The budget report before us tonight warns about this….with your officers warning that suggested changes will have a “significant impact” on our Medium Term plans, and that “the level of volatility is probably greater than at any point in the past”.

This is why they warn that the council should consider carefully its rate of council tax, and felt the need to spell out to members our duty to “consider the medium term financial projections when setting the budget”.

The truth is that financially this council is in danger of going exactly the same way that the County Council has gone.

Had they had moderate rises in council tax over the last few years they wouldn’t be in the position they are in now, and that very same thing can happen here.

We know there are discussions already taking place about rising council tax to the maximum threshold of 2.4% next year so please don’t say you haven’t been warned.

And it’s in that context that we propose a small tax rise of 1.5% (equivalent to £2.39 a year or less than 5p per week to an average band B house). This is financially prudent, and why officers are warning us we need to be thinking for the medium term and not just the next 12 months.

Reserves

Having said that, KBC’s reserves are currently healthy. Current policy dictates they should be about 10% of net revenue and they’re actually about half a million pounds better off than this, and given the uncertainties over the next few years, it would be prudent for this position to continue and we do not therefore recommend any change to this position.

Building Council Houses

We want to build new council houses!

There is a shortage of affordable housing locally and the council should be at the forefront of dealing with it.

We would actually like to engage in quite a large building programme and although there is more than enough headroom for capital borrowing in the Housing Revenue Account to allow this, because of recent government policy changes, and the uncertainty this has given the sector, this would be be a huge risk.

Government changes have already left a £65m gap in our original 30 year business plan and not knowing what the future may bring leaves this ambition currently vulnerable.

I am therefore only proposing the building of 10 houses. This proposal would be funded wholly from within the Housing Revenue Account and not be a burden to the general council tax payer, but it would show that this council recognises the need for affordable local housing and could be used as a model for future years.

Car Parking

Car parking charges have been debated time and time again and have been a controversial subject locally. We see this as very much tied to the success of the local retail sector and we want to make a very simple yet effective change!  We propose that charges for Saturdays are reduced to a simple one-off payment of 50p and this will give a huge boost to the shops and the town centre as a whole.

We would also suggest that all councillors give up their free car parking passes. It will make no difference to the budget, but will send a clear message to the public that we understand their concerns about car parking.

Filming of Council Meetings

There are councillors on both sides of the chamber that have concerns about how we currently engage with the public and we would like to address this by the filming of meetings.  

We’ve considered two options, one of live webcasting, in the same way the County Council and many other councils do, and the other to simply film the meetings and then upload them to the internet the following day.

Either would be an improvement but the second one is cheaper, so we propose that.

Council Tax Support

As we know Kettering council recently agreed to increase the minimum of Council Tax it charges to the disabled and other people on benefit to 45% from the previous figure of 25%.

Even at that previous rate, only 3% of council’s nationally charged more than us, so it’s almost certain that from this year we will be charging the most of any council in the whole country!

So we propose the setting up a hardship fund allowing those affected to apply for funding to keep amount they pay the same as it would have been before the change.

Swimming Pool

Kettering Swimming pool is an embarrassment. When compared to the pools of our local neighbours, Market Harborough, Corby and Wellingborough it comes up wanting.

It is small and has very few facilities. The local Swimming Club can’t even use it for their competitions and have to go elsewhere. We undertook a survey of residents a year or so ago and the condition of the pool came up time and time again as being inadequate and we would dearly love to build a brand new modern pool suitable for the future, but obviously that kind of capital expenditure needs to be considered very carefully.

In principle it’s sounds a great thing to do, but before a debate can take place we need to look at whether or not it is feasible, and to that end we propose that a full viability study and business case is prepared so we can decide once and for all whether the idea has any merit.

Parish Grants

In 2012/13 the council did away with £80,000 worth of grants to the town and parish councils and replaced them with a £40,000 community fund for groups to apply for small pots of capital funding.

Had the original grant still been in place, it would allow parishes and town councils to decide themselves how money is spent and take away the necessity of jumping through hoops to access the Community Fund. By removing it, we’ve encouraged councils to either bring-in, or increase the precepts that they charge on top of the normal council tax bill. Conservative controlled Desborough Town Council for example has just agreed to increase the amount they charge by over 400% this year alone.

We propose reinstating the grants to the tune of £60,000 which takes into account current public funding levels but will still be a boost to their finances and would answer recent calls made by the Rural Forum for funding which were made to last month’s Executive.

Street Cleaning

We propose to increase street cleaning by 10% in residential areas and our revenue costing for this also allows for any increase in the leasing of vehicles.

This will help address one of the complaints we hear of again and again from residents.

Personally I am more than happy to say dirty streets are not the council’s fault, but the fault of the people who drop litter in the first place, but we still need to recognise the problem and any increase in our performance will obviously be beneficial.

Extra Dog Warden

On a similar subject we also propose creating an additional post of a part-time dog warden to help enforce dog mess and increase the number of prosecutions.

Time and time again residents raise this as being of concern and frankly the amount of fines and prosecutions we issue is laughable.

We suggest that that this new post spends at least some time operating in plain clothes undercover. One of the reasons for the lack of current prosecutions is that our wardens are uniformed, which is great to give reassurance to the public, but it does mean people can see them coming and are very unlikely not to clear up their dog’s mess while they are being watched. An undercover operative to act as a witness, with perhaps their uniformed colleague in contact nearby and is much more likely to have positive results.

Domestic Bulk Collections

You are proposing almost a 9% increase in the charge for collecting domestic bulk rubbish. By contrast we suggest that the charge be reduced from the current £23 to £20.

There seems to have been an upsurge in fly tipping lately, especially in the town centre areas such as All Saints and William Knibb.

This may or may not be connected with the County Council’s decision to close the recycling centre two days a week, but clearly any additional fly tipping comes at an additional cost to this council, and to that end we believe it is the wrong time to be raising these charges and we should in fact be reducing them.

We need to encourage people to use this service not put them off. Our proposals also include a proportionate discount for students, pensioners and those on benefits.

SAVINGS

To fund these various projects we would recommend reducing the contingency fund baring in mind the healthy state of reserves, and would obviously utilise the new Transition Fund especially for the Swimming Pool study. We have also allowed for a reduction of planning fees from this year’s expected outturn of about 20%, because of an expected slowdown and reduction in economic growth.

But also as I have already said, we would suggest a moderate rise in Council tax of 1.5%. Still much lower than the 2.4% threshold, and this would go some way not only to providing better services this year, but also help put the council’s finances on a much stronger footing ready for the difficult times we know are coming. It would be foolish not to prepare for this.

CONCLUSIONS

Our proposals would therefore mean the following:

  • Building more council houses
  • Engaging with the public better
  • Supporting disabled and vulnerable residents with their council tax bills
  • Looking into the possibility of a new, modern swimming pool
  • Restoring grants to the parishes allowing local decision making as to how money is spent
  • More street cleaning
  • Better enforcement of dog mess laws
  • Address the ongoing issue of fly tipping
  • And most importantly ensuring this council remains in a secure financial position

I therefore move our alternatives and will circulate copies of our budget.

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