Tonight at Kettering Borough Council the budget was passed for the forthcoming financial year. Labour put forward a series of amendments which were naturally voted down, but that’s OK, we didn’t really expect anything else!
The budget meeting however is an opportunity for us to put forward our vision for making Kettering better, and explaining that there are real differences between us and the Conservative administration.
Tonight we explained that we wanted to build new council houses to help deal with the housing crisis we have in Kettering. We put forward proposals to reduce car parking charges, and deal with things like street litter and dog mess.
However the real point of our proposals was really about arguing that the council should do more to engage with local people and try to improve the day-to-day services that effect ordinary people’s lives. Its great having a council that is well respected in government circles, which was a point our MP made, but if we can’t get the basics right and respond to what local residents are calling for, what’s the point?
Please see below for my speech to the meeting which details some of our arguments and proposals.
The Labour Group’s Alternative Budget Proposals 2017/18
I would like to move an amendment to item 10 detailing Labour’s budget alternatives.
Last week we saw the County Council once again bring in a massive, inflation-busting rise in council tax. This from a council that has stated time and time again how they wish to keep council tax low, in exactly the same way Mr. Mayor, that The Conservative Administration of this council have said they wish to.
Because of that desire, tonight we are being once again to agree to no increases in council tax for Kettering. On the face of it that sounds a great idea
But let’s look at this in a bit more detail. It might make easy and cheap political headlines, but is it financially sensible?
This is exactly what the County Council had done over recent years, and it has led them to the point of bankruptcy. The point where they now have no choice but to pile on massive tax rises year on year. The exact opposite of what they had hoped to do.
We have long argued for small, measured and affordable rises rather than going from one extreme to the other. 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 of just 1% (3 pence per week to a band B property) and is about half the current rate of inflation.
The Conservative Group’s proposal is not only going against the advice of their own government, it risks plunging this council, and the public services it provides, into uncertainty.
If you don’t believe me, listen to your professional officers and what they say in the report before you tonight, and I quote...
(Page 3) The significant reduction in the cash grant [from the government] represents a continued challenge.
(Page 4) Given that the level of council tax has been frozen, the council will need to seriously consider what a sustainable strategy is for its level of council tax for this year.
(Page 4 again) “The levels of uncertainty and reductions in government funding in the medium term are very significant”
And... The review of business rates is also likely to bring significant challenge…..these [changes] should not be underestimated.
(Page 5) The scope for closing projected budget gaps will … be dependent on ensuring that ALL elements of the council’s budget framework make a positive contribution.
And... Maintaining Council Tax at its current level ...is unlikely to be sustainable.
I could go on!
But surely you must understand the message you are being given. It’s irresponsible to ignore it.
Believe me I do not want to stand up here tonight and argue for tax increases, even the very small one we are proposing.
Politically I’d much sooner be saying to the public that we can make-do with no increase. But it’s not true!
It’s not sustainable, and for a serious opposition to say such things would be irresponsible.
We are not willing to bury our heads in the sand over the council’s finances even if you are.
And it is in that context that we propose a small tax rise of 1% (equivalent to £1.60 a year or about 3 pence per week to an average band B house).
This is financially prudent, and why officers are warning you that you need to be thinking for the medium term and not just the next 12 months.
The budget as it stands is designed simply to ‘make-do’, to ‘get-by’. It shows little ambition for anything else.
It does nothing to improve or enhance the levels of service provided by this council. It does nothing to address the calls from the public who are demanding more from the council.
Car parking charges are an obvious example. Time and time again both residents and retailers have called for a reduction in charges, and time and time again the Conservative Group have ignored these calls, despite it being a manifesto pledge of theirs.
I know Mr. Mayor that the administration has belatedly said they are going to conduct a review on this issue, but tonight’s budget is based on those charges remaining exactly the same for at least another year. Any upholding of the manifesto pledge won’t therefore come in until next year, just one year before the next election! People aren’t stupid; they’ll see that as blatant electioneering!
We need to bring in changes now, not just before an election.
We therefore once again propose that charges for Saturdays are reduced to a simple one-off payment of 50p! This will give a huge boost to the shops and the town centre as a whole, and is affordable.
Filming of Council Meetings
The way the council engages with the public has long been a concern of the Labour Group. The complete lack of response to the budget consultation highlights that!
We need to do more to not only reach the public, but also to listen and act on their concerns. A good first step would be allow them to view council meetings from their own homes to try to increase public understanding of exactly what this council does and why.
So after discussing the matter with your officers we propose the filming of council meetings in the same way we did this time last year. The issue still needs to be addressed!
Council Tax Support
As we know Kettering Council recently decided to keep the level of support it offers its vulnerable residents to help with their council tax bills at an all time low. The amount of help offered isn’t only the lowest this council has ever given; it’s the lowest amount of any council anywhere in the entire country!
...And that is unlikely to change this financial year. Neighbouring Corby for example have already decided to keep their rate at only 8.5%.
So we therefore propose the setting up of a hardship fund to allow those affected to apply for funding to keep amount they pay 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%.
Street Cleaning etc.
I’ve spoken before of this council’s inaction in responding to public demand and its lack of ambition about improving local services.
To that end we wish an increase in services in a number of areas.
We had originally wanted to make proposals to increase the trimming of trees. Unfortunately we have fallen foul of your so-called financial ‘Golden principles’ which stop any extra funding on this.
When these principals were first devised back in 2008 they may well have been a prudent response to the financial situation the time. Now however, their lack of flexibility can simply hold this council back from doing exactly the sort of thing that our residents are calling for us to do and I would suggest that that these principals are reviewed because having both hands tied behind our collective backs may not actually be the best way forward.
However, what we do propose, is that extra resources are made available for environmental issues such as street cleaning, including the extra cleaning of leaves during the autumn, fly tipping including more of the recent amnesties which were apparently successful, and for education and promotional work around issues of street litter and fly-tipping.
It is not the council’s fault litter is dropped on the streets.
It is entirely the fault of the people that do it, but we do have the responsibility to clear it up on behalf of our residents and anything the council can do to get the message home that dropping litter and dumping furniture is wrong, should be done, not least because even small improvements will bring much larger long-term savings. After discussing this with officers as to the best way to have the greatest impact we are suggesting an extra £46,000 to be spent, and following their advice we deliberately are not proposing exactly how much should be spent on each of these areas but to allow them the flexibility to come up with a plan, in conjunction with your executive, to work out the details.
The point is a simple one - it’s about improving day to day services.
Extra Dog Warden
We have also previously suggested an extra part time post to enable better enforcement of dog mess. Last year this was greeted with laughter as comments were made about a dog warden in plain clothes being dressed in a dog outfit.
But this is a serious matter! And we once again put forward the proposal for a part-time dog warden to work alongside the uniformed one to help enforce these rules 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.
Ward Intuitive Fund
One way that every councillor has a positive impact on their local communities is through the use of the 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 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 will often involve relatively small amounts of money, but goes on to make such a big impact locally.
Building Council Houses
We want to build new council houses!
So as well as these adjustments to the revenue budget we would also like to propose a change to the Housing Revenue Account to include capital funding for the building of new council houses.
A year ago we argued that the council should build more council houses, and if anything the reason for doing so has 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 affordable housing locally and the council should be at the forefront of dealing with it.
We therefore propose building of 20 new council homes in this financial year including 10 of them being specially adapted for the disabled. This has been fully costed and planned with your finance team.
This proposal would be funded wholly from within the Housing Revenue Account and not be a burden to the general tax payer. But it would show that this council recognises the problem, and hopefully would just be the start of a larger building programme over the next few years.
Our proposals, which are considered credible and fully funded by your finance officers, would therefore mean the following:
- Better engagement with the public.
- Supporting disabled and vulnerable residents.
- More street cleaning and less fly tipping.
- Better enforcement of dog mess laws.
- Supporting local charities and community groups.
- The building of more council houses to address the local shortfall.
And most importantly:
- Improving the likelihood that the council will remain in a secure financial position during the difficult times ahead.
These proposals will move this council away from the attitude of simply ‘making-do’ and ‘getting-by’. They will show that the services we offer 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.
... And Mr. Mayor, wish the opportunity to reply at the end of the debate.