Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Council Tax and budgets

Last night's full council meeting was long and challenging with some difficult decisions to be made around budgets and council tax made more difficult by the uncertainty around funding for local government thanks to the changes the British government has made to council tax grants.

The changes to the council tax grants mean that in 5 years' time all money spent by parish and town councils will come from the council tax precept rather than a mixture of precept and money from the British government as it is now. It means that the £10k or so a year that Stirchley & Brookside Parish Council gets as a grant paid out of general taxation towards the cost of statutory services it provides will have to be added on to council tax instead or services will have to be cut elsewhere to cover the shortfall. It's basically a way for the British government to raise taxes and deflect the criticism away from themselves and onto local councils.

At last night's meeting we finally had a clear view of what the parish council's income was going to be for the next year and that meant a reassessment of the budgets that had already been agreed by the three committees at the end of last year. These budgets cover staffing costs, office costs, environmental maintenance, community initiatives, etc. and come to about £240k a year. It sounds like a lot of money and it is but the parish also gets a lot for that money. That doesn't mean that we can continue spending that much money though, especially when so many people are struggling which is why I couldn't agree with a rise in the parish council's council tax precept.

The parish council has a budget shortfall this coming year and for the foreseeable future and it is going to get worse. There are increased costs for existing public sector pensions for council staff thanks to underperformance of the superannuation scheme and the legislation that requires employers to provide a contributory pension to all employees also applies to the parish council which is another cost that will hit us next year. Add to that the swingeing cuts to the council tax grant and constant demands on the parish council to provide services that are being cut by the borough council and the British government and it paints a dismal picture.

At last night's meeting several options were presented for the budget, all of which involved spending money out of the council's reserves - money that is set aside to pay the bills for a few months if something goes disastrously wrong. These reserves have been dipped into the last couple of years to subsidise spending against my advice making the difference between income and expenditure increasingly large year on year. The council voted to increase the parish council's council tax precept by about 3% which is about £2.60 for the year for a Band A property, or 5p a week. To cover the shortfall in funding the council also voted to spend a few thousand from reserves.

Myself and Cllr Watkin abstained from the vote. I don't know Cllr Watkin's reasons but from past experience I suspect they were the same as mine - although the amount of the increase is tiny, it's still an increase and we should be looking at how we can reduce costs instead of increasing taxes to carry on spending at the same rate.

I pointed out that £7k could be saved without cutting services by abolishing councillors' allowances which predictably attracted zero support. There are next to no costs involved in being a parish councillor other than your time and a few phone calls. I think we need to cut costs with South Telford Rights of Way Partnership - it's a great service which maintains and promotes mainly "rural" footpaths and rights of way and the council gets a lot of value from it but it costs us £5k per year to do something that the borough council is supposed to do. The Gorge Parish Council have already withdrawn from STROWP leaving just three parish councils footing the bills. I think the parish newsletter also needs to be re-evaluated. There have been problems with delivery meaning some people often don't get the newsletter and in this internet age the majority of people have access to the internet and can get whatever information they need online. Doing away with the printed newsletter would save £2k a year.

So with no option of cutting costs instead of raising tax I abstained on the vote on setting the precept. I didn't vote against it because from an accounting point of view it was a sound decision but I won't agree to a tax increase without first looking at ways we can cut costs. I will continue to look for ways to save money with minimal impact on services but with some of my fellow councillors talking about increasing services while we are looking at a financial black hole, I don't hold out much hope of meaningful change this side of next year's election!

Friday, 24 January 2014

A question on adult social care

I put a question to Cllr England who is the cabinet member for adult social care (amongst other things) at last night's borough council meeting at TCAT. Last night was the first time public questions had ever been asked at a borough council meeting.
Without social services’ support, many carers will be unable to continue to care for loved ones at home.

The planned cuts to the adult social care budget will result in more adults needing full time professional care in care homes at the council’s expense.

How much is care home use expected to rise and what is being done to ensure there is adequate provision?
He gave a comprehensive response explaining where they thought they were going to save money and that they don't expect an increase in care home use. I disagree with the conclusion and believe that the savings will be outweighed by the additional costs. Many carers simply wouldn't cope without the comprehensive support of adult social services and the care and respite that they facilitate. The people with complex needs who are the hardest to care for at home are the ones who will cost a fortune to keep in a care home. Spending £15k on a care package for a severely disabled adult to allow them to be cared for at home is much more sensible than withdrawing support and footing the £75-80k cost of providing full time residential care for them.

Interestingly, the Conservatives have prepared an alternative budget and say they would cancel the Pride in Your Community programme which they consider to be pointless window dressing and spend the money on keeping down the cuts to the adult social care budget. They may have a point on priorities but figures released recently show that crime rates in Woodside have dropped by something like 60% in the 10 years since the regeneration was carried out there. There is evidence to show that physical regeneration reduces crime and anti-social behaviour and increases self-esteem which has a corresponding positive impact on levels of worklessness. Of course, Woodside had something like £74m spent on it eventually which is significantly more than the anywhere else in the borough is likely to see.

My conclusion is that both parties have clearly thought about their budgets but neither of them has the right answer. I don't know where the money would come from to maintain adequate funding for adult social care but it's clear to me that not finding the funding will cost the taxpayer more money.

Monday, 20 January 2014

First litter pick of 2014

The turnout for yesterday's litter pick was excellent with a mixture of new and old faces, including one family who spotted us while we were picking up litter and decided to join us there and then.

Between us we collected 18 sacks of rubbish from Burford, the spinal path and the park.

The next litter pick is next Saturday at 10am, meeting outside the community centre.

Monday Matters


Sunday, 19 January 2014

Fundamentalist Christian councillor blames floods on homosexuals

A UKIP councillor from Henley has reiterated his belief that the floods we've experienced recently are divine retribution for same sex marriage.

Cllr David Silvester says that the floods are a punishment from God for allowing same sex marriage which the bible says is a sin. He says that "God wants all gay men to repent and be healed".

This has caused quite a lot of negative press as you can imagine and the fact he's a UKIP councillor has been used by some to paint the party as bigoted and homophobic when of course that's simply not the case. This isn't Cllr Silvester's politics talking, this is his religious fundamentalism and his crazy, medieval views on homosexuality are not at all representative of the party.

I would suggest that if Cllr Silvester wants to wage a war of religious righteousness on homosexuality then he should take a look at the Christian Party who have similarly intolerant and antiquated views as his own because he's not the sort of person that I want to be associated with.

Update:
Cllr Silvester has been suspended from the party pending disciplinary proceedings.


Sunday, 12 January 2014

Youth Services Public Meeting

I went to a public meeting about youth services in Stirchley & Brookside on Thursday organised by community organisers Leigh Ricketts and Kathryn MacDonald.

The general consensus was that youth provision in both Brookside and Stirchley were poor. A couple of people went as far as to describe it as sh*t.

There were lots of issues and suggestions raised at the meeting, including:

Issues

  • Bullying at youth club in Brookside
  • People don't know who is in charge of youth services
  • Even people living next to the Community Centre don't know what's happening there
  • Drugs and drink at park
  • Community Centre didn't feel like it belongs to the community
  • Nothing locally for children with special needs
  • Brookside has 100% more youth provision than Stirchley
Suggestions

  • Something through the letterbox saying what's on
  • Kids have their own communication network which can be used to spread the word about services
  • Youth engagement for conservation programme has secured funding and is about to start
  • Youth café
  • Scouts and cubs
  • Young organisers group could be set up
  • Kids helping at community café
Another meeting is planned in the next couple of weeks to see how residents want to tackle these issues and put some of their ideas into action. If you want to get involved in changing youth services in Brookside and Stirchley then you can contact Leigh through his website.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Planning & Environment Committee meeting on Tuesday

There is a meeting of the parish council's Planning & Environment Committee on Tuesday.

Amongst other things, a progress report on the Stirchley & Brookside Parish Plan and a planning application for signage at the new hairdressers in Brookside.

The meeting starts at 7:30pm at the Sambrook Centre and members of the public can speak in the public open session at the beginning of the meeting.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Fly tipping and litter in Burford

As I walked to Burford yesterday I was disappointed to see that after just a few weeks without litter picks, the streets are covered in litter and fly tips again.

I reported four fly tips in Burford yesterday and the remains of a large fire between Burford and Burtondale. I will also talk to BIG about restarting the litter picks as soon as possible in an attempt to get our estate looking reasonably tidy again.