Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Budget Setting

Members of the Public attending the Talking Together Session on the Draft Budget in the Dolphin Centre

Yesterday's Cabinet considered the Council's budget for next year. For local authorities, this has been the toughest budget process in living memory - the credit crunch has created a "perfect storm" for councils which have relied upon accrued interest to balance the books.

The economic downturn has hit income generating outlets in leisure and the arts too. This has had an impact across the authority - car parking income is lower, for exazmple. And at the same time, when inflation generally is a lot lower, services for adults are costing more, in part the result of our ageing population.

So it's good news here in Darlington that there is a emphasis on achieving value for money in all that the Council does. That's why we're recognised by the independent Audit Commission as delivering excellence in this important sphere - we are one of only two unitary authorities in the country to have gained 4 stars as a high performing low cost council. Efficiencies this year across all departments will total £2.6 million, rising to a projected £4.9 million in 2012/13. In total since 2004, the Council has saved £10 million, which has both preserved key services, and helped keep the increase in Council Tax lower than it might have been.

Still there were some hard choices in this year's draft budget, including the closure of the Mayor's Charity Shop, the demolition of the aviary in South Park, and the alteration to school cycle training such that sessions would have to be paid for by parents.

Owing in the main to the finding of further efficiencies and increased revenue, these reductions were stayed, or in the case of the cycle training, eliminated altogether. Discussions will now continue to find an agreed way forward as far as the Mayor's Charity Shop and the aviary are concerned.

On the same agenda, supported bus travel was considered. As a result of the failure of competition, councils like Darlington have found their budgets for essential services rocketing in recent years as the big bus companies have withdrawn from more and more routes. The Council's Environment Scrutiny Committee had considered the issue, and recommended several additional routes for consideration, benefitting communities in Springfield and Whinfield, Harrowgate Hill and Blackwell. As I pointed out to Cabinet, it was only because of the savings achieved elsewhere that we could accept these recommendations and seek tenders to implement them.

If you wait for the opposition to puublicly acknowledge the Council's canny approach to budgeting, you'll only grow old and disappointed!

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