Thursday, February 04, 2016

Council's Budget II - What do the Figures Mean?

At the very heart of Darlington Council’s appalling difficulties (and those of every other Local Authority in the North East) is the scale of the Government grant that has been taken away since 2010 – cuts that will be compounded between now and 2020.

So here are the facts:

Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, DBC’s Government grant was cut in real terms by £37 million (a 47% reduction.) Councils are a “people” business, with a heavy reliance on staff to deliver the services. To date, 572 full-time jobs have been lost.

To achieve those savings, like other council’s DBC has tried to protect front-line services. There have been significant management savings, and the Xentrall collaboration with Stockton BC saves over £2 million a year in ‘back office’ efficiencies (operation of IT, payroll and the like.)

Still some high profile areas of Council spend have had to take a hit. People will think of the Arts Centre, but those savings have been realised across the Authority.

Between now and 2019/20, Tory Government cuts mean that a further £12 million will have to be saved. With efficiencies already squeezed dry, options are extremely limited.

Over the next few weeks and months, you will probably read a lot about Councils and their ‘Statutory services’. This relates to those things that councils have to do by law. We estimate that there are 1,300 “legal requirements with which councils like DBC have to comply.

Why is this so important now? Because Government grants (which will probably have been phased out altogether by 2020) plus Council Tax barely meets those legal requirements. They include key elements of Children’s and Adults Services (child protection, children in care, school transport for example) some maintenance of the highways, a bin collection, a library service (but to what level is not said), planning. There are some others.

What isn’t ‘Statutory’ is a much, much more extensive list. Regrettably, it includes council services which are at the very heart of our community, and about which people immediately think of when they imagine what a local council “does”.

Working with families and children in need, support for the voluntary sector including charities, leisure (the Dolphin Centre and Eastbourne Complex), much of the library service, the maintenance of parks, gardens and open spaces, museums (like the Head of Steam). Even lollipop men and women aren’t required by law. Councils don’t have to provide them.

Of course, DBC (like the vast majority of all councils) wants to provide these services to a good standard. That’s why they’re there in the first place – because they have been demanded by local communities.

But now, the impact of austerity is so overwhelming, that they are almost completely unaffordable. Locally-raised Council tax and Government grant dwindling to nothing, simply doesn’t bridge the gap.

So this draft budget which is now out for consultation only provides for those ‘Statutory’ services. Because of the hard work done over the years, there is an additional £2.3 million to allocate to the most vital services. The Council’s Cabinet is suggesting that some provision for the most needy be included, that school crossing patrols be protected, that our town’s heritage be preserved by continuing to invest in the Head of Steam museum, that at least some of the cuts to Street Scene not be made. Also there is money for economic growth, because we must continue to bring good quality jobs and investment into the town.

A lot has to change, however. Somehow, enough has been found to keep the Dolphin Centre, but only by including within it the new library (moved from Crown Street) and incorporating a Children’s Centre. The news today has been dominated by the particular impact on the Covered Market.

How should we feel about this carnage? First and foremost, we should be angry! Bloody angry!! The Tories have no love for local government, they know that councils tend to take the blame when Government cuts have to be delivered locally, and they are cynically exploiting that. It is grotesquely unfair. Key services which the neediest in our society rely upon are suffering. Key local facilities are disappearing, and all because Westminster Tories don’t give a toss about anyone north of the Watford Gap.

Yet somehow, we should remain hopeful too. Darlington is still a great place in which to live, and in which to bring up a family. The Feethams multiplex/hotel/restaurant/multi-storey care park development shows that the town centre is on the up. Highly-skilled jobs and investment continue to come into town. Darlington will survive this terrible period.

Of course we should protest! Sign the petition to Government created by Peter Barron demanding that the Government reassess its terribly unfair spending formula for Darlington. Lobby our MP to give her the maximum authority when she challenges Government Minsters. Write letters. March.

But take time to look at the Council papers too, and have your say on the proposals. Should the Council continue to invest in the Dolphin Centre, school, crossing patrols, economic development and the railway museum, or should they cease and other priorities be found?

Sounds like an impossible choice? It is – but that’s the inescapable reality facing Darlington between now and 2020. Unfortunately, there’s no place to hide.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Darlington Borough Council Budget 2016

Just as I did back in 2014, I'm resurrecting my blog for the purposes of getting some points across regarding the Council's draft budget, which will be announced over the next few days.

Things were really tough in 2014, but now they are truly horrendous. The Tory Government has carried on where the Tory/LibDem hybrid left off, and is targetting local council spending for the heaviest of the cuts - presumably they continue to bank on people blaming their local elected representatives for the deterioration in council services, rather than Whitehall and Westminster, where responsibility truly lies.

As a starter for 10, here is DBC Leader Cllr. Bill Dixon's overview of the budget, which you will be able to see in March's edition of the One Darlington magazine:

"I appreciate that the budget proposals in this magazine, and available in full on our website, don’t make for easy reading. We have had to make some tough decisions in the past months to ensure we can continue to provide the services that we think are most valued by you, our residents.

This means we have retained the Dolphin Centre, a library service and aspects of the Borough’s heritage, alongside the essential services that protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Most people in the Borough do not use most council services but I know you care deeply about those services that you do use and, in some cases, rely on. It has been a juggling act as the money we get from Government has been reduced by £13m, which is a significant amount, but we have tried to ensure a core offer that has value for the majority of residents.

The reduction in funding from the Government amounts to a tax on local councils but it is important to remember that these cuts only effect local council spending, they do not affect the aspirations of the town.

Everywhere I look I see new private sector development and investment coming into the town, from the new cinema complex to Central Park, and as long as people continue to see a future for the town it will thrive. Darlington’s biggest asset has always been its residents and as we see services we have relied on being sadly cut, now is the time for us all to step up and think what we can do for our community, however large and small.

By working together and helping each other I am confident Darlington will remain a great place to live, work and visit.

I want to hear your views on the proposals but it is important to understand that this is a realistic offer of services given the resources we have. Sadly we can only play the cards we have been dealt, not the cards we would like to play."

I'll be posting more over the next few days, to try and make sense of the numbers and what the proposals actually mean.