My Response To The Budget
Havering Council have recently announced a proposal that Council Tax will rise by 2.99%, this year. The claim is that this will increase people’s bills by £56 a year, but that’s not the full picture and most will see a real terms reduction.
At first glance, the council tax rise proposal is going to hit those in need hard. That makes me wince and I’m not comfortable with it. However, Havering Council’s proposals mean that it will be able to continue to provide care and support to those who need it instead of cutting back at the most crucial of times.
By law, Havering Council must deliver what is known as a ‘balanced budget’. This means that, if the predicted cost of spending goes up, then they have to make cuts or raise taxes. There is no option for spending more than they have, as you or I are able to do if we have a good credit rating.
The last 4 years have seen growing pressure on Havering that means there is little choice left but to put up Council Tax. But I think it’s the right thing to do, for now.
Taking Care of The Vulnerable
Let’s start with the obvious. Covid has put untold pressure on the NHS and the country.
Whilst we’re fortunate that government schemes like furlough relieved some of the pressure on people’s incomes it couldn’t relieve the pressure on the NHS. Waiting lists are never-ending and people are being discharged earlier, whilst they are still ill or frail. Similarly, there are increasing numbers of vulnerable residents who are avoiding hospitals right now.
This means more pressure is put on local councils as they take care of the elderly and vulnerable.
1% of the Council Tax rise is what’s known as the Adult Social Care Precept. It funds exactly that type of care.
I think it’s only right that, whilst still building back from Covid, we make sure the elderly and vulnerable get the care they need.
The budget proposal reveals a hidden crisis going on in Havering, with rapidly increasing numbers of children suspected as suffering harm. In 2018 the Council was contacted 8,000 times. By 2021 this had doubled to 16,000 times. Each child placed in the Council’s care deserves all we can give them.
Havering is seeing increased numbers of children placed in to care, increased numbers of children with Special Educational Need (SEND), and increased costs in providing transport to these children (such as the busses that take them to school).
There isn’t a day go by when a resident doesn’t flag a pothole with me. You’d find it impossible to locate a Councillor or Candidate who isn’t cheering that they “reported a pothole and it got fixed”. Well done us eh?
Of course, reporting these is just the start. A pothole or pavement doesn’t get repaired using election leaflets (though maybe that would be a better use of them).
Havering Council increased the budget, for repairing roads and pavements, from £2m a year to £12m a year. This means that, over the past 4 years, an extra £40m has been spent. There is still much to do and this is a priority for many residents.
Now, perhaps this could be dialled down a little, to say £10m. But if you talk to people on the doorstep this seems to be one of the number 1 problems that they want fixed. It is a Councillors job to represent those views and I don’t think I’ve come across a single resident who wants this budget cut.
How Did We Get Here?
It’s easy to say “well we should have run things properly in the first place”. That’s a common argument for those who want to replace the Conservatives, in running the Borough, but who know they would have to make the same tough choices.
Havering Council has, consistently, been ranked as one of the UK’s most efficiently run councils. In fact, I believe we’re #5 at the moment. Our Council’s staff are already stretched thin and working harder than ever to deliver what’s needed.
Even during Covid, Havering continued to enjoy weekly bin collections, something that only 20% of the UK gets. Our roads continued to be repaired, tens of thousands of children were able to use leisure centres for free. Parking was made free, on multiple occasions, to support our stores.
Hundreds of new council houses were built, existing homes were upgraded and improved, and 3 new leisure centres built.
We’ve not had a Council that’s sat around doing nothing for 4 years. We’ve had one that has worked hard through the toughest of times.
The only reason Havering was able to maintain services, during the pandemic, was because it has made smart choices over the last decade. Other councils performed much worse.
What to Cut?
So this is the question that almost no-one wants to answer. Where will Havering Council have to, or could, make savings?
Well the one I hear the most, especially from other political parties, is a complaint that two cabinet members were recently added to the Council’s cabinet. This is claimed to cost us around £60k. Let’s take that figure and put it in to context.
It’s not insignificant, but what is it for? Two new cabinet positions who will focus on public safety as well as regeneration.
During a recent survey, of resident, public protection was listed as the number 1 concern. Having a dedicated cabinet member to look at policing and CCTV is a vital step in making our town safer. It’ll mean we have someone, full time, to make sure residents are heard.
Regeneration, too, is vital to Havering. Upgrading our town centre, and making sure that developers pay their way.
Still, £60k is a lot of money. But the Council is staring down a gap as big as £10.8 million. Scrapping the new, much needed cabinet positions, would not make a difference to the need to raise Council Taxes. We’ve got a £10m gap. You could sack every cabinet member and you’d still need to find over £9.6m.
As I said earlier, we could look at cutting back the road repair budget. But you show me someone who wants that done. Show me someone who doesn’t want to keep our weekly bin collections or who thinks we need to spend less on providing for the elderly and vulnerable.
Havering Council is proposing cutting as many as 400 jobs from Town Hall. This is not a pleasing thing to have to do and it will put increasing levels of work on the remaining staff. But this looks to be one of the very few areas where a real difference can be made, along with looking at the amount of office spaced used.
New ways of working, sped up by the Pandemic, have meant we have smarter ways of doing things. New IT systems mean people can work from home, cutting down on their commuting costs and expensive office space. New systems means work can be allocated smarter and more done with less.
What’s the good news?
There is some good news here!
For those on the lowest incomes, many will in fact see their council tax bill go down this year. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a £150 rebate for households in the lowest Council tax bands. With the rise being around £56 per year, this £150 rebate will mean their next bill could go down by nearly £100. Havering Council predict that around 80% of residents fall in the relevant bands.
The rise will mean money is spent on what matters the most. More money for caring for the elderly, our roads continuing to be repaired, our libraries remaining open, our leisure centres and council housing upgraded, our streets safer and cleaner. Whilst other Boroughs are cutting back on what they provide, or facing bankruptcy, Havering Conservatives have managed to keep Havering going.
There is hope on the horizon with costs too. Inflation is high, seriously high, and this costs everyone including the Council. But recent predictions have this coming back down in 2023, relieving some of the pressure currently being felt.
Thanks to the Government’s world-leading vaccination programme, and covid restrictions that let the British public decide what’s best for them, we’re powering out of the pandemic and will be the first major economy to be fully open. Thank goodness we didn’t follow Labour’s suggestion of teaming up with Europe for this!
There are tough times ahead, as there always will be. But this budget proposal is what we need to get Havering back on track.
There are some, however, who object. To them the question is simple. What’s your alternative? What would you cut?