Agenda item

First reading debate on the 2014/15 - 2017/18 budget

A report in accordance with the requirement in Standing Order 24(b) as set out in Part 3 of the Constitution to present the financial position of the Council, financial forecasts for the following year and the possible expenditure priorities of the Executive. There shall then be a debate on the issues raised in that report held in accordance with Standing Order 44 hereinafter called a “First Reading Debate”.’   

Minutes:

Councillor Butt opened the debate by referring to difficult times for the Council and residents of Brent.  Next year’s budget required a saving of £18M and for the years after further savings totalling £52M.  This would result in the Council having £100m less to spend on services than it did in 2010.  He outlined the effect that Government policies were having on the residents of Brent.  Councillor Butt explained that the proposed budget had been designed to protect the most vulnerable residents in the borough and make Brent a fairer place to live.  He referred to the move to the civic centre which would save the Council £2m per year and the opening of the new library that had doubled the number of visitors compared to the old Town Hall library.  By 2014 the One Council programme would have achieved savings of £74M; £3m had been saved by halving the top management team of the Council and the new public realm contract would make the borough a cleaner and greener place to live whilst delivering savings of £1.3m per year.  Councillor Butt pointed out that this was the first time that such a list of savings had been presented to members this early in the budget process.  He stated that he wanted to hear the views of members because there would be some difficult decisions to be taken.  Council Tax had been frozen for the last 4 years and would be again next year.  Residents were being helped to save money by taking part in the Big London Energy switching scheme.  The Council now paid the London Living Wage to all its staff and local businesses were being urged to do the same.  Support was being provided to the 2,000 families most affected by the benefit reforms through the innovative Navigator programme.  A priority for the Council was to help local businesses to grow.  Councillor Butt stated that the opening of the London Designer Outlet was a major step forward to make this a reality.  The Council had already cut car parking charges to assist local shops and would soon be launching the Brent small business hub.  Work was being undertaken to implement the Council’s regeneration programme, provide more school places and build more new homes.  New arrangements had been introduced to provide meals on wheels which involved local business outlets providing them.  Councillor Butt thanked residents who had got involved in the budget setting process and submitted the report circulated for debate. 

 

Councillor Lorber referred to the reference to difficult times and reminded the meeting that such times had been identified back in 2008 when the Administration at that time was advised that whatever Government was next elected there would be a substantial reduction in funding for local government.  A programme was therefore embarked upon which included re-organising the Council and making efficiencies.  This was the beginning of the One Council programme referred to by the Leader.  Councillor Lorber referred to the report which stated that regardless of the outcome of the next general election, all the political parties were committed to continuing with the current spending plans.  He acknowledged that moving to the civic centre would generate substantial efficiency savings and stated that this was the only reason why the previous Administration had allowed the building plans to proceed.  He felt the savings for the Council could be larger but were dependant on the current Administration making the most of the new building, ensuring all the available space was hired out to generate income, but he could not see evidence of this.  Councillor Lorber stated that the financial disaster in 2008 was created by the then Labour Government and caused the opening of the London Designer Outlet and some housing developments in the area to be 5 years behind the original schedule.  He saw no point in blaming the present Government.  There was a need to recognise that times were tough and to address the issues by listening to the views of local people.  He emphasised the need to have trust in local people having a role in delivering local services.  Councillor Lorber stated that the Council had decimated the library service but that a determined bunch of local people had got together to run voluntary libraries thereby defeating the Council.   He referred to the proposal to cut the ward working budget for the second year running, having increased it in the past.  Whilst acknowledging the need to provide money for local initiatives, Councillor Lorber stressed that the programme needed to be run as efficiently as possible.  However, he submitted that the same level of bureaucracy remained.  By trusting local people and local councillors it would make better use of the money.  He undertook to look at the proposals within the budget and challenge them where necessary.  He felt the budget needed to concentrate on keeping the streets clean and removing the rise in parking permit charges which would have a detrimental effect on local people.

 

Councillor Kansagra referred to spending under the last Labour Government.  He reiterated that Labour had said it would have implemented the cuts now being experienced. He referred to an increase in the number of apprentices, higher employment figures with more people in work than ever before and the number of claimants reduced as signs that Government policy was working.  He added that statistics were showing that the income inequality gap was at its lowest since 1986.  Increases in personal allowances had meant more people were not paying any income tax whilst remembering that it was the last Labour Government that abolished the 10p income tax rate meaning those less well off had to pay higher taxes.  The petrol levy had reduced under the present government after Labour had increased it twelve fold.  Councillor Kansagra pointed to Councillor Butt taking the credit for freezing Council Tax when he had no alternative because a deemed excessive rise would have meant holding a local referendum.  He stated that benefit cuts were needed because many families were living in overcrowded conditions in the rented sector and yet there were people in social housing with spare bedrooms they did not need which were being paid for by the taxpayer.  Councillor Kansagra submitted that the last Government had mis-read the level of immigration which had led to lower wages and pressure being put on local services bringing them to breaking point.  He noted that the Council’s budget gap had initially stood at £24M but was now £13M.  He wanted to know the split between what had been spent on redundancy pay-outs and what had been spent on restructuring costs.  Councillor Kansagra also mentioned past increases in the ward working budget which was now facing its second successive cut.  He was seriously concerned that in the past money had been found for ward working which could have been spent protecting the library service.  He felt that although ward working was important it was not crucial and so suggested it could be stopped now and revived later when the Council could afford it.  This would free money to put back into saving some of the libraries and towards community grants/projects. Councillor Kansagra referred to the issue of parking and the need to support the London Designer Outlet by providing cheap and easy parking otherwise it would lose customers to neighbouring shopping areas. 

 

During debate, reference was made to the poor state of repair of the roads and the need to remove some speed humps where they adversely affected the health and well-being of the residents living in the roads because cars slowed down and increased speed causing an increase in noise and fumes.  A call was made to retain parking scratch cards.  A claim was made that the redevelopment of the Willesden Green centre was not wanted by local people who would rather see the Kensal Rise library re-open.  A view was expressed that money was still wasted on such things as the official opening of the civic centre, the installation of a hologram and the creation of an on-line budget calculator.  Whilst some blamed the present Government others saw it as the result of the misdeeds of the previous Government.  Some members felt that  Council led community events should not be scrapped; that Brent was a diverse borough and such a move led to destroying the community spirit.  Instead a call was made for some money to be put into supporting the community.  In contradiction to the claim that the proposed budget sought to protect local people it was suggested that closing six libraries was not good for local residents.  Some members felt greater investment was needed in the borough’s roads and pavements.  Attention was drawn to the contradiction of, on the one hand devising a health strategy and on the other increasing the cost of getting healthy by increasing fees for sport centres.  Increases in the fees for cemeteries again showed that the budget did not benefit local people.  Reference was made to plans to scrap school patrols and the view expressed about how important they were considering the number of accidents in London.  Reference was made to the Government funding provided to the Council to pay off the housing debt, additional funding for providing health services and other grants provided by the Government as examples of the Council benefiting from Government funding but it was questioned how these various funding streams were identified and spent by the Council.  There was criticism that money was being taken away from ward working and expenditure incurred on those people identified as already receiving too much from the public purse. 

 

Councillor Hopkins, Chair of Budget and Finance Overview and Scrutiny Committee, sought imaginative ideas to cope with the cuts which the Council faced.  She stated that her committee had questioned officers to explore the use of jobsearch, freecycle and engagement with business partners to make full use of the civic centre.  She felt more imagination was needed and increased engagement with local people in an effort to work together. 

 

Other members emphasised the scale of cuts faced by the Council and referred to them as being the largest seen in a generation.  The accusation was made that the opposition parties were failing to stand up for the welfare of local residents.  It was pointed out that the level of national debt had increased under the present Government.  A comparison was made between those people facing having to move outside the borough as a consequence of Government policy and those who had managed to get a job using the Navigator service provide by the Council.  A view was submitted that debating ward working, scratch cards and the condition of roads did not address the situation the Council was in which had resulted from a global economic crisis.  It was further submitted that the crisis had been dealt with by the Chancellor of an earlier Labour Government otherwise it would have been far more serious.  It was therefore claimed that the budget gap the Council faced was the direct result of Government cuts.  Reference was made to government statements that it was the ideological objective of the Government to reduce state spending and that this was therefore a deliberate policy not a passive issue.  Reference was made to the views expressed regarding cars and parking and it was pointed out that nothing was said about the effects of the pollution they caused.  It was felt that there needed to be greater acknowledgement of the sheer scale of the cuts faced by the Council and members needed to be challenged for their ideas on how these could be achieved.  Responding to criticism about lack of engagement with residents, it was stated that the Council meeting was being live streamed for the first time, the budget simulator had asked residents what their priorities were and the establishment of the Brent libraries forum designed to engage with the community sector were examples of such engagement.  Councillor R Moher, Lead Member, Finance and Corporate Resources, stated that the debate had centred around who was to blame but it was a fact that the national debt was now higher than under the previous Labour Government, economic growth had been higher under the Labour Government and that the world-wide financial problems had caused the present situation.  She explained that the budget proposals had managed to deal with the levels of cuts required from next year’s budget but the following two years were going to be much worse.  She hoped to hear from members their ideas on how the Council could deal with this rather than proposals on how to move money from one area (ward working) to another area (libraries).  There was no spare money and the Council needed to drastically change the way it worked.  Councillor R Moher proposed a workshop to look at what could be done with what money the Council had.  The Mayor endorsed the idea of a cross party working group.

 

RESOLVED:

 

(i)         that the broad budgetary priorities set out in the report from the Executive be noted;

 

(ii)        that the issues raised in the First Reading debate be noted and referred to the Budget and Finance Overview and Scrutiny Committee as appropriate.

Supporting documents: