The speech below was given by Mick Scrimshaw, the Leader of the Opposition Labour Group, in response to the Conservative ruling group’s setting of Kettering Borough Council’s budget today (Wednesday 28th February).
I would like to move an amendment to agenda item 9 detailing Labour’s budget alternatives.
The budget before us tonight is a balanced budget! No one can argue with that but is it enough?
Once again it is a budget designed to simply get the Council through the next financial year. It shows no imagination or ambition.
It does very little to actually improve the services we offer to our residents and does very little to answer the calls from local residents for improvements to services. Things like the issue of car parking charges and improvements to our town centres, for example, both issues I will come into later.
The Council should be more than about just getting by and making do, it needs to take a leadership role in the community and be a strong voice for local residents; all local residents, not just those that are able to look after themselves.
Council Tax Policy
During the last few week’s this council has been a spectator to a crisis in local government locally that has been the subject of national attention.
The County Council’s financial meltdown may have given some members of this council a feeling of smug satisfaction that this council is not in the same position. But there are similarities!
One of the reasons the County Council are now in the mess they’re in is because of their previous policy of refusing to put up council tax... In exactly the same way, Mr Mayor, that The Conservative Administration of this council have said they do not wish to.
Instead of small, measured, affordable rises around the rate of inflation, they went for no increases at all in a populist move designed to bring them electoral success. A policy that they now publically recognise was a mistake, and which has led in part to the massive, inflation-busting rises we see now and to suggestions of going to a public referendum to put tax up anywhere between 10 and 20% in the future.
Having the example of NCC on our doorstep should act as a wake-up call to this council.
But instead, once again you intend to ignore the advice of your professional officers and bring in no increase at all. The report in front of you tonight states clearly that maintaining Council Tax at its current level into the medium term is unlikely to be sustainable, a point made again and again throughout the report.
It goes on to say that if the Council is to deliver a balanced budget in the medium term, it will need to seriously consider its main sources of income.
One of your own councillors has said, “Northamptonshire County Council only froze Council Tax for three years, eight years is ridiculous!” and “Retaining Council Tax at that level is absolutely crazy” and points out “that KPMG state that financial pressures are likely to increase,” and, “The Government assumes a 3% rise and by not doing this we have forgone nearly £1 million of revenue”.
In contrast, another of your members, during the consultation has said, “I am opposed to a Council Tax increase because I went into politics to stop them”. Laudable, but financially irresponsible!
Nobody wants to put up Council Tax! Not you, not us and certainly not residents... But we have a duty to our residents to ensure this council continues on a sound financial footing and has a sustainable plan going forward.
The Labour Group have long argued for small, measured and affordable rises rather than going from one extreme to the other in the way the County Council has done. By once again proposing no rise whatsoever, the Tories are simply looking for short-term headlines, and piling up financial trouble for the future.
What is needed is prudent, sensible long-term financial planning.
And so our alternative suggestion is for a rise in line with inflation of 3% (just 8 pence per week (or £4.78) to a band B property). This is the rate Government expect us to set, and if we don’t do this, we already know that we will be penalised in the Government's Fairer Funding review when it does eventually come out. We know that because national Conservatives have already said so!
We have no idea yet how future funding will affect this Borough, but we do know that there will be no new money, and it’s a fair bet, given the problems upper tier authorities are having around the cost of Social Care, that councils such as this one will end up worse off.
And this is why your Officers have again and again in the report before you tonight, pleaded with you to consider this.
Believe me, I do not want to stand up here tonight and arguer for tax increases, even the very small one we are proposing. I’d much sooner be saying to the public that we can make-do with no increase. But it’s simply not true!
It’s not sustainable, and for a serious opposition to say such things would be irresponsible. Relying totally on future income from commercial investments, which is what one of your Councillors has told me you’re doing, is pure folly.
As much as we support those schemes, your own Officers have said that this is a lot harder than they thought it would be, and to rely on this, and this alone is simply irresponsible. We are not willing to bury our heads in the sand over the Council’s finances even if you are. This is why this council should put in the small 8 pence per week rise I have outlined.
This is financially prudent, and why officers are warning you that you need to do it.
Council Tax Support
As we know Kettering Borough Council recently decided, once again, to keep the level of support it offers its vulnerable residents towards their Council Tax bills, at an all-time low. The amount of help is the lowest amount of any council anywhere in the entire country! A position that Kettering has embarrassingly been in for some years now... And that is unlikely to change this financial year. Neighbouring Corby, for example, has already decided to keep their rate at only 8.5%.
As has been said by an ex-Conservative Borough Councillor as part of the budget consultation:
"You are claiming eight unprecedented years of no Council Tax increases; this is not true for every member of the community, with payments increasing from 20% to 45% for those on such low incomes they qualify for Council Tax Support."
How do you think the poorer members of the community feel knowing they are the only ones to pay this increase?
So we, therefore, propose the setting up of a hardship fund to allow those affected to apply for funding to keep the amount they pay KBC at the same rate they were paying a couple of years ago, 25% which is more in line with the national average and not the current high rate of 45%.
National austerity policies have hit some of the most vulnerable people in our society and this has manifested itself nowhere more than around the rising problem of homelessness and rough sleeping.
In Kettering, we have seen the number of our residents becoming homeless rise month on month for several years and it doesn’t look like changing anytime soon (not perhaps until we have a change in national government). For some of them we have a legal duty to help them, but for others, we do not!
Although that duty will soon be increasing with the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act in a couple of months. That will put extra financial pressure onto the Council’s Housing Department, and I’ll come onto that in more detail shortly, but first I want to talk about the rise in rough sleepers who generally fall outside of our statutory responsibility.
We are all aware of the increase in the numbers of people sleeping on our streets. This council has a moral obligation to act!
We have recently seen the opening of a new night shelter in Kettering, which is already making a huge difference to those who, for whatever reason, currently fall between the cracks of the Council’s help. This facility is being provided for the community, by the community. It relies on the goodwill and generosity of Kettering people and with very little help from this council. The Council don’t even pay them for the clients that the Council would otherwise have to make expensive provision for under the Government’s rules on providing emergency accommodation during bad weather.
We propose therefore to use capital funds to invest in a permanent building to be used as a night shelter and use a Service Level Agreement with the voluntary sector to help run it funded from the general revenue budget.
The Council would help fund the permanent staffing of the shelter 24/7 365 days a year with volunteers from the chosen organisation providing the service they do now. As a consequence, there would actually be other smaller savings from other parts of the Council’s budget, but prudently we are not including any estimates of these in our overall budget suggestions.
We have a moral duty to act! Kettering people do not want to see people being forced to sleep rough on the streets. They want their council, as their leaders in our community, to rise to the task and offer help rather than turning a blind eye and blaming others!
As I have already mentioned, the budget as it stands is designed simply to ‘make-do’, to ‘get-by’. It shows little ambition for anything else. It does little to improve or enhance the levels of service provided by this council, and one area where this is strikingly obvious is around the issue of car parking charges.
Business owners and residents alike have raised this issue time and time again as one that concerns them, and time and time again the Conservative Group have ignored these calls, despite it being a manifesto pledge of theirs.
We recently saw the results of the long awaiting review on car parking charges where a commitment to reduce charges was fudged. With the only real reduction coming from an extra hour’s free parking in Saturday mornings between 8 and 9am!
We therefore propose an immediate 20% reduction in charges across the board and are happy to sit down with the administration to work out exactly how this should be implemented, but with the proviso that we need to encourage more shoppers to visit our town centre as a way of supporting local businesses and other facilities.
Young Person’s Dragon’s Den
The Labour Group want this council to do more to help young people. We also want the Council to take a lead in encouraging entrepreneurs and business within our Borough.
We, therefore, propose funding a competition designed to encourage young business people and set up a Dragon’s Den style competition where youngsters under the age of 25 will be able to pitch their business ideas to a panel made up of local business people.
Apart from the funding, this will be totally run by local business and we have already had discussions with the business community who are very supportive of this idea, many of whom are already enthusiastically working to try to support businesses not only in the town centre’s retail sector but within the business community as a whole.
We suggest a top prize of up to £5,000 being made available but with smaller grants available for other ideas, but to who, and how these prizes are distributed will be entirely left up to the business community.
But by showing this commitment, the council will be taking a lead in that community and showing that not only does it genuinely support our local economy, but that it is willing to become actively engaged in doing so, answering one of the main criticisms this council has long faced.
Town Centre Manager
On a similar note, we propose the funding of a full-time Town Centre Manager, not just for Kettering Town itself, but to work with the A6 towns as well.
This manager will be funded from KBC but will work outside the direct control of the council and must be answerable to the business community themselves. We do not want just one more Council Officer promoting the views of the Council; we need someone able and willing to fight for local business even if this puts them in direct conflict of those paying their wages.
The people of the Borough of Kettering have long shown their concerns about the retail offer that our towns have, and how this council has failed to properly engage with the business community in the past. It is not enough to simply leave businesses to fend for themselves and for them to be a lone voice in the fight to provide the sort of improvements that would help, not only them but the wider community at large.
This new manager will be able to act as an advocate for business with the Council and be free to work with other partners to encourage retail investment into our retail centres.
Kettering is growing! Because of that, there is the potential of massively increased footfall in our town centre, and this is a great selling point for national retailers looking to invest in Kettering. But we need to be actively encouraging this and have a voice shouting for our local businesses.
This is why this council needs a long-term commitment to this role and we propose the funding for this role will go into the Council’s base budget thereby doing away with the risk that it is seen as a short-term gimmick. Business needs a helping hand and the proactive lead from the Council this suggestion provides.
Extra Traffic Warden
For years this council has been in dispute with the County Council about the future of car parking enforcement. Great steps have been made recently to bring this issue to a close but we are not there yet, and given recent events at County there is a very real danger that this issue may once again find itself on the back-burner.
While this goes on, the problems around illegal parking in our town centres, our residential areas, and in particular around schools continue.
We, therefore, propose that until the issue of decriminalisation of parking is resolved, and until KBC can finally use their own wardens to provide much needed added enforcement, that we simply fund another warden for the Police.
This would double the amount of enforcement from dedicated traffic wardens and while in no way provides a permanent solution; it will overnight allow the Police the resources they desperately need to help tackle the problems we currently face.
I’m sure every Councillor in this meeting has had to deal with complaints from residents about parking issues. Indeed myself, along with Cllr. Bain and others have recently attended a couple of meetings with a new Kettering group set up to highlight these very concerns.
This is not a long-term solution, but until our hands are untied it will at least bring some relief.
The recent bad weather has once again raised the issues of a lack of gritting on our roads and footpaths. Some of the responsibility for this clearly lands on the shoulders of the County Council, but this council also has a role to play!
When the snow and ice comes we need more gritting of the Council owned car parks, the Market Place and parts of the pedestrianised area, and especially around our sheltered housing.
At the moment KBC maintains a small stockpile of grit of 26 tonnes and they are able to use this to help, but they have to keep a minimum level of 8 tonnes in case things get worse and they are unable to replenish their stocks quickly enough. This has left occasions where the Council simply cannot offer the service it would like to.
We have therefore had detailed discussions with Officers about how to address this and propose increasing the levels of stock by 10 tonnes to 36 and to provide extra labour as and when it is needed. This is a very small step but one that can offer an immediate and beneficial impact on local people when it is needed.
Currently, the service we offer is good but not good enough. Far too many accidents occur that are preventable and these accidents disproportionately affect our elderly residents and those for whatever reason are unsure on their feet.
A simple problem with a simple solution!
Increase in Homelessness Prevention and Reduction on Pressure in the Housing Department
I mentioned earlier the rise in homelessness.
As we are all only too aware this has caused serious pressures on our staff leading to delays in dealing with homelessness applications and also within the Council's Housing Department. Too many of our residents are facing delays and problems in finding suitable housing. The fundamental issue is obviously a lack of social housing which I will come onto later, but the pressures of administering housing applications is reaching crisis point.
As a council, we have a duty to deal with this, and reform of our services is desperately needed. We, therefore, propose a small but significant restructuring of our housing team to provide additional resources to help deal with these pressures to address the current backlog of applications both now and in the future.
We suggest therefore extra staff in these areas and propose funding to come equally from the Housing Revenue Account and from increasing the homelessness budget. We have spoken to Housing Officers and not only is this achievable and beneficial, it will also have a knock-on effect elsewhere that will generate savings within the Council, not least from the huge amounts currently spent in providing statutory emergency housing.
Ward Intuitive Fund
One way that every Councillor has a positive impact on their local communities is through the use of the Council’s Ward Initiative Fund. This fund allows us to support small local projects, charities, clubs and other organisations to make our Borough a better place to live.
We, therefore, propose raising this fund from the current £625 to £1,000 for each Councillor so it can be spent in support of their residents who are already doing such a great job in the community.
This support often involves relatively small amounts of money, but makes such a big impact locally, and will become even more important given the County Council’s decision to completely cut their similar funding which will take £5,000 away from every local County Councillor which will have a huge impact on small community groups.
We understand this council’s reluctance to pick up spending cuts from elsewhere, but the only people being affected are our local people and our local community. This modest proposal will not have a huge impact but will enable members of this council the opportunity to work within their individual areas and do some good for their own communities at a time when the public’s attitude to councillors is probably not as good as we would like it to be.
Building Council Houses
We want to build new council houses!
So as well as the adjustments to the revenue budget I’ve outlined, we would also like to propose a change to the Housing Revenue Account to include capital funding for the building of new council houses. We have consistently argued that the council should build more council houses, and if anything the reason for doing so has once again grown over the last twelve months.
We have seen massive rises in homelessness and sat by and watched as our housing waiting lists reach breaking point.
The Keyways housing allocation system isn’t working for large numbers of people, and that’s because of a simple supply and demand problem. We have the demand, but not the supply.
There is a massive shortage of social housing locally and the council needs to be at the forefront of dealing with it.
Councils up and down the country are saying the same. Nationally, both major parties are committed to more housing and there is general agreement that those ambitions can only be met by local authorities also playing their part.
Other councils are restricted by national policy around the levels of HRA borrowing. This council is not! Because of a historic reluctance to build, KBC has more than enough headroom within its financing requirements, and we can build!
We, therefore, propose building of 100 new council homes in this financial year including 30 of them being specially adapted for the disabled. This proposal has been fully costed and planned with your finance team and I would have to say seems to come with the full support of Officers, who like us, recognise the need.
The proposal would be funded wholly from within the Housing Revenue Account and not be a burden to the general taxpayer, but will have a massive impact on the financial pressures I mentioned earlier within both the Homelessness and Housing Departments and again will result in revenue savings both within the HRA and the general revenue fund.
Our proposals, which are considered credible and fully funded by your Finance Officers, would therefore not only reduce the risk around the Council’s financial position during the difficult times ahead... They will move this council away from the attitude of simply ‘making-do’ and ‘getting-by’.
They show that the services the Council offers can be improved and that this council does have the capacity to listen and to react to what our local residents are telling us.
I therefore move our alternatives and will circulate copies of our budget suggestions together with an amended Council Tax resolution... And Mr Mayor, wish the opportunity to reply at the end of the debate.