Thursday 18 March 2010

Council Budget Part One - H&F’s Conservative Administration

Did you ever see an episode of the West Wing titled Celestial Navigation? It’s wonderful television. In fact, if it wasn’t for Josh Lyman, the fictional White House Deputy Chief of Staff making an inadvertent admission of a “secret plan to fight inflation” we may never have had the inspiration to learn that H&F Conservatives actually had a “secret budget” prior to the 2006 local elections. Here’s an extract from the exact transcript of H&F Council's Annual Budget Meeting which took place on 22nd February 2006:

Cllr. Stephen Cowan - Labour
“Why would you have a secret budget?”
Cllr. Nicholas Botterill – Conservative
“Why would I have a secret budget…? Well you’ll find out on May 5th” (the day after the 2006 local elections).

And we did… We learnt precisely why H&F Conservatives were so desperate to keep their plans “secret” from the public back then. Over the last four years they:
There’s much more - which regular readers will be familiar with. But, over the years the Conservatives have also given us plenty of insights and we have now learnt there are four aspects to their strategy for managing the borough’s finances. Those are:
  1. Stealth taxes: - new and higher residents’ charges. “Don’t be afraid to increase charges to residents by many times more than inflation… “The market will self correct”, we were told. People are less likely to notice council charges than council tax.
  2. Sell community buildings, demolish and sell off land currently occupied by council houses and rent out parks: - A policy the Tories refer to as “sweating assets”. This has seen schools and community centres sold off; eight estates offered for sale; hundreds of council homes sold instead of re-let and parks closed for exclusive private events.
  3. Cut front line staff’s pay, terms and conditions: – As has happened across a broad range of areas including refuse collectors and caretakers which contrast with record salary hikes won by senior management and sought by Tory councillors.
  4. Continuously cut services: – Cuts have been made in services from home care to dog fouling removal.
Oddly, H&F Conservatives are so nervous about their council tax record that and have openly sought to mislead residents about what has happened with that.

Last year’s budget was agreed by the Tory Administration in February. By May the Administration had confessed that it was in “Crisis”. The Administration has spent the rest of the year trying to catch up. The Conservative leadership were so embarrassed by this that they actually failed to turn up to the appropriate committee to explain what went wrong.

A lot has happened in the last four years with a total of £42million cut from front line services. This year’s budget took place only weeks before the next elections on May 6th. Despite committing to a further £25million of cuts over the next three years it contained very little detailed explanation of the new stealth taxes and reduced services that will be in place to make that happen. Even the senior officials of the Council looked embarrassed when they themselves were unable to explain how these reductions would be delivered.

Being in Administration stops the Conservatives from having a blatantly “secret budget” this time. However, the 2010/11 budget is highly secretive and, if it’s anything like last time, bodes ill for the many residents and businesses in this borough.

Even as we emerge from the worst global recession since 1929 many local families, small retailers and businesses will continue to struggle. There's a better way and the new Council Administration must be capable of putting all residents first. I will shortly publish some of the Labour Group of Councillors' proposals that will seek to do precisely that.

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