Full written speech;
When we won the election in 2007 we made it very clear as an administration that we were intent on managing the Council’s finances and services for the benefit of the residents of this Borough. We were not going to adopt a short term strategy but take decisions for the long term that would not jeopardise South Ribble. When we repeated our electoral success in 2011 we continued on that course.
This management of the finances and services is why I am making the budget speech this evening in a spirit of optimism. Not for us the doom and gloom of redundancies, cuts in services and the threat of bankruptcy – we are genuinely looking to the future.
It has been obvious to all but the most one-eyed that the years of Labour spending and debt could only be repaired in one way – the cutting of costs and the repayment of debt. This has inevitably meant that government spending and grants would be cut and all bodies dependent to some degree on public funding would have to shoulder a large part of the burden. This administration recognised that simple fact and has managed and planned accordingly.
The country’s economic recovery cannot be produced by cost cutting and debt repayment alone. There has to be investment and growth and it is absolutely clear that this is now happening. Interest rates remain at a historic low, inflation is falling – now below 2% - and unemployment is falling more quickly than in any other major economy. Britain is recovering faster than any other country. Growth is back!
It is in this economic climate and with this backdrop that the budget is being set tonight for 2014/15 and I will detail the revenue estimates and proposed investment in the Borough.
Our original budget for 2013/14 anticipated that a contribution of £607K would need to be made from the General Reserve. In the event, we are now forecasting that the Council will achieve a net underspend of £651K of which £390K represents recurring savings and £261K efficiencies from one off items. I want at this point to express my thanks to the staff here at the Council who have worked so hard to achieve this impressive result.
Turning to 2014/15 our forecast budget shortfall is £742K. We have already identified realistic savings targets of £410K, we intend to reduce planned contributions to earmarked reserves of £200K and this will leave a planned transfer of £132K from General reserve to balance the budget. This is our best forecast at this moment but I have to introduce a note of caution as the position with Business Rates retention is still unclear both with regard to the final calculation of the Council’s entitlement and also with the results of the rates appeals that are currently outstanding. I will report further to the Council when the picture is known.
As members know, Mr Mayor, we constantly examine our working practices and procedures to ensure that the Council is working as efficiently as possible. It is because of this work that we have already been able to identify such significant savings for 2014/15.
Despite reductions of around 57% in our Government grant over five years I am recommending to the Council this evening that our share of Council Tax is frozen for the fourth time in five years. Unfortunately the bills that will drop onto our residents’ doormats over the next two to three weeks will show an increase in the amounts payable. This is because the Labour administration at County Hall has raised the County Council precept by 1.99% as has the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner. This is an especially bitter pill to swallow as the Commissioner’s budget is underspent for the current year and he has also declared that even though the police precept is rising there will be no extra police officers. Same old Labour – don’t bother managing situations or search for tenable solutions, just raise tax and increase spending. Very familiar isn’t it?
Again, because of our strategic management and planning, I am also able to announce tonight further significant investment in the Borough and I will now set out some of the detail. We are investing £400K over four years in our parks and open spaces. This is being increased to £600K with the extra £200K being spent in this coming year. We aim to ensure, for one, that the Green Flags that have been awarded remain in force and other parks achieve the same standard.
We are investing a further £80,000 in 2014/15 of which £40K will be for the masterplanning of key sites and £40K will be in respect of street furniture including signs and bins for example.
Regeneration projects are planned for Bamber Bridge and Penwortham and those plans are being drawn up with Penwortham being implemented in this coming financial year.
We are freezing car parking charges for a fifth year in a row to help support local businesses and we are continuing our commitment to community safety. This means that funding will still be available for four PCSOs, CCTV and domestic violence support services – we are proud of our commitments in these areas even though other authorities have foregone their responsibilities.
I would also draw members’ attention to item No 9 on the agenda this evening. I will explain this item more fully a little later but I would like to emphasise that the good news contained in that report would not have been possible without the constant attention paid to the financial control and management of the Council.
South Ribble is one of the UK’s most exciting development areas. The City deal that we have entered into with Preston City Council and Lancashire County Council will drive growth, jobs and infrastructure over the next ten years bringing an estimated £400 million to the local economy.
The Cuerden development area will produce major investment especially for employment purposes as it attracts some of the country’s biggest companies and the Enterprise Zone, based upon BAE at Samlesbury, will contribute to world class engineering and employment – exciting times are ahead.
Unfortunately there are some problems we have to address that are caused by external circumstances. Members heard earlier of the reductions in the contributions to the waste management services that will cost our Authority £54K per annum over the next number of years, with the prospect of losing £1 million a year in funding in four years time.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of all is the position with the Council Tax Support scheme. Last year we resolved to recover the reduction in the funding of Council Tax Benefit by charging a flat rate of £2.95 per week to working age benefit claimants. Originally the sum was to be £3.50 but due to the cut in the County’s precept made by the then Conservative administration we were able to reduce to £2.95.
We had no intention of raising that amount this year but due to the regrettable increases imposed by the Police Commissioner and the County Council we have no alternative but to raise this flat rate contribution to £3.50 per week. It was said at the last Council meeting that we Conservatives displayed a “callous disregard” for workers’ interests – how does Labour, together with their LibDem coalition partners at County Hall, reconcile that with this further imposition on working age claimants?
Despite these disappointments we will continue to provide our residents with the best possible services at the most economic price we can manage. The freezing of Council Tax yet again is testament to this aim.
Mr Mayor, I want to take this opportunity of thanking all the hard working staff of South Ribble whose efforts year round are much appreciated by me and my colleagues on this side of the chamber. I wish to thank in particular Michael Fisher and his team for all their industry in collecting and recording all the Council tax and business rates.
This year has been particularly testing with the new system of the Council Tax Support Scheme and the whole area of Business Rates Retention. Our collection rate has exceeded all the gloomy forecasts and to cope with a system of rates that is giving the government itself problems is quite a performance. Many thanks!
I must also thank Susan Guinness, Garry Barclay and their respective teams for their kindness, guidance and professionalism. Their ability to adapt to constant changes and challenges is crucial to the continued success of this Council. The glowing references given by our auditors to the Council’s financial controls and system of governance are a glowing testimony to their efforts.
As usual, last but certainly not least, I thank Mike Nuttall and the senior management team, my Cabinet colleagues and fellow Councillors for their support. I am sure they know how important that is.
Mr Mayor, at this point I would like to move the approval of the statutory resolution, a draft of which has been forwarded with the agenda. This resolution incorporates the tax relating to the County Council, the Police Authority, the combined Fire Authority and as appropriate the taxes relating to the parish and town councils in this area. I would also like to move the recommendations under item 10b of the Cabinet meeting of 12th February which you will recall were deferred from item 7 of the Council agenda.
This budget spells out our faith in the future of South Ribble Borough Council. The leader of the opposition is quoted as saying that this is a budget for a Council in decline – I have no idea what sort of measurement he is using but I suspect that, like the Labour Party itself, it is based purely upon the amount of spending and the number of people employed. He needs to look closer to home – the last things this budget and our finances symbolise is decline!
Mr Mayor, this administration is looking forward with confidence to a new era of opportunity and prosperity for South Ribble and I commend this budget to the Council and its residents.