Budget 2017/18 speech to council

On 15 Feb here’s what I had to say about the Tories’ proposed budget:

This council is constrained by central Government’s continued cuts in funding to local government. We expect no complaints from the ruling administration about that; it’s their party running the show.

This budget is supported by a c tax increase for residents. I heard the leader of County Council said yesterday, ‘Who in their right mind would vote for a c tax increase?’ Does the Leader of this council agree with that sentiment?

In this past year, we’ve adopted a Corporate Plan, which lists councils priorities for five years. Tonight’s budget is for year two of the five. Since the details of the Corporate Plan are delayed a little, we don’t yet have sight of what this administration plans to do to achieve our objectives. So it’s not easy for council members to see how the proposed budget supports this councils’ priorities.

The Corporate Plan explicitly prioritises keeping our position as a top performer on waste collection and recycling. This budget shows reduced income and higher costs for waste and recycling. How much more yearly expense is it worth to keep our position as a top performer? What IS a top performer, exactly?

We have a Corporate Plan priority of ‘Supporting community events through our grants scheme.’ But this budget eliminates community festival grants. Really?

The Corporate plan says right up front that ‘housing is our greatest challenge’. Which of these budget growth items will provide more housing at affordable prices, to rent or to buy, for residents of Vale?

In keeping our Corporate Plan’s promise to keep communities clean and attractive, what sort of budget support is there for litter picking along our A roads? How about intractable problems such as the Fly Tip Mountain in Redbridge that made the news just this week?

It appears this year’s budget decisions were driven by something other than our adopted Corporate Plan, but I don’t know what that was, because the process is not yet open to public scrutiny. Hopefully our Scrutiny Committee can improve that.

We are in year one of the Five Councils partnership for outsourcing. From the essential  growth bid we see a £1.5million hit in savings forecast over the next two years. I’m surprised this council didn’t get some financial benefit for being the first to go live, considering the extra risk on our shoulders for going first and letting our partners benefit from our learning. Was this the intention?

In order to make some limited revenue savings, this budget sells our planning officers’ time to other councils for training and service. I question whether this a good idea. Do our planning officers actually have extra time on their hands that we can sell to other authorities? I’d like to see a net financial statement for this please.

For six years  my colleagues and I in the northeast area of the Vale have persisted in arguing for a fair provision of leisure facilities for people who live in Botley, Cumnor and surrounding communities. This budget sees a 2-days-a-week Vale officer to help the Botley community plan for the leisure facilities they need and want. Then when the money is received from the sale of West Way, some of it is to be prioritised for the provision of leisure facilities for the people in the Botley area. I’ve been told off the record that this is the intention. Will the leader confirm publicly that these things are a priority for council to provide for the people in Botley and the northeast area of the Vale?

Budget setting processes take place behind closed doors. We used to hold public consultations on the budget, but that has shut down in recent years. I’d like to see council be more transparent in how it determines what growth bids are included and wish care rejected.  After all, it’s public money and the public should have a view into and a say on how it’s all managed.

In times of austerity (even when that austerity is imposed arbitrarily from central government) we owe it to our residents to make our budget decisions based on our agreed corporate objectives, ensure our agreed expenditures are systematically managed and overseen, and that our performance is assessed at year end against our objectives. I don’t think council is doing its best in this, and I’d like to see improvement.

Children’s Centres Grants speech to council

On 15 Feb here’s what I said about the Children’s Centre grants amendment motion:

I think we all agree the Children’s Centres provide vital community resource for early intervention for children under 5 and their families. It’s the main programme I’m aware of that improves children’s social mobility and therefore their life chances.

I heard this Government tout grammar schools as a way to give every child a chance at achieving their potential. But studies show unequivocally that children’s life outcomes are largely determined by the time they are 5 years old. Their life achievements are more predicted by the demographics of their families than any other thing. So it makes sense that programmes designed for early intervention have the best chance for success.

I’ve heard the argument that children’s centres are not district business, they are county. Clearly  county can’t afford to support the children’s centres any longer. Towns and parishes are doing what they can to help their local children’s centres, because it’s the right thing to do. We aren’t proposing taking on the management of children’s centres; they are actively working toward managing themselves. We propose a grants pot to help those organisations through their first year.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s not a statutory responsibility. We do lots of things we aren’t required to do. Did you know we have no statutory responsibility to supply leisure centres? But we spend millions on them.

Children’s Centres are exactly the sort of not-for-profit organisation our grants schemes are intended to support. Once we have transformed our local government into a unitary authority, this sort of service provision will be very much in our remit. In the meantime, we are able to help, and we should.

Vale Budget 2017/18

Well, we tried to get some support for the beleaguered Children’s Centres. Tories voted us down, even those councillors from communities where the parishes or towns wanted to help their local children’s centers. It’s like they’ll help their own, not those in other areas of Vale.

The Liberal Democrats submitted a bid to set up a grants pot for the Vale’s Children’s Centres. We think the children’s centres provide vital community resource for early intervention for children under 5 and their families. So we re-submitted it as a motion to amend the budget to include £100,000 to help children’s centres who are working toward becoming self-sufficient. Please read more about it here (there are a couple of articles):  http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/category/grants/

Tories voted against our amendment. It’s sadly predictable. They are all for spending money on economic growth that no one wants, but have no time to spend on the people already living here who might need more support.

The budget includes a £5 per year council tax increase, or 4.3%. As far as I can tell, this is to make the budget balance, which councils are required to do.

To double check my assumption, I asked the Cabinet member for Finance, Cllr Robert Sharp, how he would answer the question of why he raised council tax. His reply, ‘To safeguard and maintain the excellent services provided for residents.’

As far as I’m concerned, it’s questionable whether we can really afford to spend £18.8m on a new leisure Centre in Wantage in these times of government austerity.  Yes, you read that correctly: eighteen point 8 million pounds on a leisure centre for Wantage and Grove.

Here’s what I said about the children’s centres budget amendment at full council meeting: http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/2017/02/20/childrens-centres-grants-speech-to-council/

Here’s what I had to say about the overall budget: http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/2017/02/20/budget-201718-speech-to-council/

My concerns about the Unitary solution

I had this to say in full council meeting on 15 Feb 2017.

Unitary

I think we all agree that a single, countywide unitary authority is best for the residents of Vale. I also think it’s best for residents of Oxfordshire, but many disagree.

If we follow the paraphrased advice of Edmund Burke here, we will prioritise first our judgement of what is in the best interests of the wider county, second the opinions of our local council and wards, and last the interests of our political party.

I have three main concerns about the coming decision.

My first concern is that this proposal must be modified to adequately address the needs of rural communities and not just urban, and in a way that recognises the unique needs of each area, especially Oxford City, and doesn’t supply a simple one-size-fits-all solution that’s just an ‘average’ and so satisfies nothing very well.

My second concern is that this Tory-led movement will silence or marginalise other voices in the county. Since the people haven’t had a chance to vote on this, the county and districts’ ruling groups do not have a mandate to reorganise local government. This isn’t a decision that can simply be reversed by casting a different vote at the next election. Once we’re reorganised, it can’t be undone. To mitigate that, I’d like see steps taken to include other voices besides solely Tory ones. It would help if Labour-run City were at the table. But more broadly, and as a principle, I think a good solution is to have an opposition voice from each council seated on whatever transition board is set up to manage this change.

My third concern is highlighted by the misunderstandings people already have of what is being proposed. That is best mitigated by a better communications campaign, in my opinion. For example, having a look at the dissent online, petitions and Facebook postings, people think the districts will be turning over management of their business to county, and object to that based on their perceptions of county’s ability to manage well. They haven’t got the point that ALL councils will be disbanded and a whole new council elected. A better PR campaign is needed. (PR  Public Relations, not Proportional Representation, at least not in this instance.)

But overall, the Liberal Democrats’ view is that the needs of the people of Oxfordshire are best served by a single, county-wide unitary authority.

 

Cllr Emily Smith, on children’s centres

Last night Vale considered a Liberal Democrat amendment to the 2017/18 budget. We proposed to set up a modest grants scheme to help the Vale’s Children’s Centres that are working toward self-sufficiency through this challenging first year.  

— The Tory councillors all voted against, even those who sit on town and parish councils who are actually supporting their Children’s Centers. So the amendment failed. 

Here’s what Cllr Emily Smith had to say as she seconded the amendment motion.

Children’s Centres improve children’s life chances and strengthen their resilience. They intervene in problems early on before these problems become too difficult to reverse. Across the Vale, these Centres support parents with employment, housing and parenting. They also give under 5s a safe place to play and socialise, helping to ensure that all children are ready when they start school. 

The centres provide a focal point for local families where they can access health services, information and form supportive relationships with other parents that continue as their children grow. The centres we have are well used and fulfil a number of the aims set out in the Vale’s Corporate Plan – particularly in relation to community safety, supporting community groups and encouraging volunteering.

There is a wealth of evidence that investing in early intervention is the best way to reduce inequality and give all children the chance to fulfil their potential.   

As funding for Children’s Centres is withdrawn, the County Council focuses more on the families in greatest need. This means that the universal provision that so many of our residents rely on is disappearing. This is of great concern to me. 

Post-natal depression, domestic abuse, illness, disability, unemployment, bereavement or social isolation can happen to anyone – not just people living in deprived communities. Children’s Centres provide support with a huge range of issues quickly, before they escalate, reducing demand on Social Care and Health services.   

Also, without services that are open to all families, how will know who needs the most support? We risk leaving families struggling until they reach a crisis point.  

Children’s Centres are highly valued by service users and the communities they are based in. This is evidenced by the fact that so many local people are willing to contribute their time, knowledge and expertise to form community groups to keep these services going. But these groups need our help. 

Creating a grant pot, to top-up the Transition funding available from the County Council, will help ensure these not-for-profit groups are able to afford the set up costs for this initial year. It really could mean the difference between these new community groups succeeding or not.  

We have heard some Councillors suggest that Children’s Centres are not the District Council’s responsibility, but the budget being proposed this evening includes spending on both statutory and discretionary items. The discretionary items (that we don’t have to pay for) include leisure centres, the Beacon coffee shop, the outdoor pool at Abbey Meadow and the CCTV Hub. So should we remove these from the budget, because we don’t have to provide them either.  

We all have residents in our wards who rely on Children’s Centres and our communities are stronger because of the services these centres provide. Our finance officers have confirmed the we can easily afford to help these new community groups, so I ask all Councillors here tonight to support this amendment. Not because we have to, but because we can, and it is the right thing to do.

A single unitary authority for Oxfordshire

Today I’m studying the low level detail of Oxfordshire County council’s proposal for a single countywide unitary authority. 

I agree with the view that the only option is a single unitary; it’s the only approach that saves significant money by removing back office redundancy. I’m concerned about some aspects of this proposal, however. So I’m reading it closely looking for how this proposal addresses the needs of rural communities and not just urban, and how it recognises the unique needs of Oxford City and not just an ‘average’ that satisfies nothing very well. 

One big concern I have is that the Tory movement will silence or marginalise other voices in the county. Since we haven’t had a chance to vote on this, the county and districts ruling groups don’t have a mandate to reorganise local government. To mitigate that, I’d like see steps taken to include other voices besides solely Tory ones. It would help if Labour-run City were at the table. I think a good solution is to have an opposition voice for each council seated at this transition table. 

Reading and thinking.

Children’s Centres Grant Scheme – 2017/18 

For full council on 15 Feb 2017 at 19:30.

Liberal Democrat motion to amend the budget: proposed by Cllr Judy Roberts, seconded by Cllr Emily Smith

This council recognises the valuable work carried out the Children’s Centres across the Vale and is deeply concerned about the impact on local families and our communities when the County Council ceases provision of universal children’s services on 1st March 2017. The children’s centres in Botley, Abingdon, Grove & The Hanneys, Faringdon, Southmoor and Wantage provide essential well-being services to children under 5 and their families.

This council also recognises the significant efforts of parents and community groups working to find alternative ways of providing universal services for our families and the financial challenges involved. Their hard work for a good cause underlines how they feel about the value of these services.

This council is in a position to help fund the set-up costs for these projects in the coming year, via our grants scheme. Therefore, the budget for 2017/18 will include a grant fund of £100,000 for groups to apply for and £3,000 to pay for officer time to administer these grants following the same procedure as the New Homes Bonus and Community Capital Funds.

————————–

Background

The Head of Finance has confirmed that these costs are sustainable within the 2017/18 budget.

Vale’s Corporate Plan for 2016 – 2020 outlines council’s aims, which include:

• Supporting community groups and community events through our grant scheme.

• Assisting voluntary and community groups that provide important services to residents, to attract volunteers.

• Working with partners as part of the South and Vale Community Safety Partnership to deliver the annual plan aimed at reducing crime, tackling antisocial behaviour and supporting vulnerable people.

These Vale corporate objectives are met by the successful early intervention services that Children’s Centres provide.

We’ve heard the argument that children’s centres are county’s business, not district’s. Clearly county can’t afford the children’s centres any longer, so many centres are working to find their own ways of being viable and self-sustaining. It’s exactly the sort of not-for-profit organisation our grants schemes support. Once we have transformed our local government into a unitary authority, this sort of service provision will be very much in our remit. In the meantime, we are able to help, and we should.

Recent developments, please note:

• Members of Abingdon Town Council agreed unanimously to raise their precept in order to place £30,000 per year for three years into a reserve fund, to be paid out to South Abingdon Children’s Centre, subject to certain conditions being met.

• Cumnor Parish Council have donated £5000 to their local Children’s Centre.

• Wantage Town Council donated £10,000 per annum for three years to a newly formed group to manage local children’s centre services.

 

 

 

Vale Liberal Democrats support the OneOxfordshire proposal

The Liberal Democrat group of Vale of White Horse unanimously supports the proposal for a new countywide single unitary authority.

You can read more about the proposal here: http://www.oneoxfordshire.org/

We said this about that in a press release:

Today the Vale of White Horse DC Liberal Democrat Group have put forward the following motion for Full Council on the 15th of February that “This Council supports the proposal for a new countywide unitary authority”.  This motion has been accepted for debate. It has been proposed because Vale Liberal Democrats now feel that a county wide unitary is in the very best interests of the people of Oxfordshire.

VWHDC Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Cllr Debby Hallett said:

“This proposal could lead to annual savings of some £20 million per annum within three years, which equates to £60,000 per day. These savings can be used to maintain and enhance the front line services people rely on, such as children’s centres, bus services, and social care for children and adults. The proposed structure, using area boards, preserves the democratic representation of local people and issues; local people will still be at the heart of decision making on local issues.”

On behalf of Vale Liberal Democrat Group

Cllr Debby Hallett, Leader

Draft Budget 2017/18 published

Vale Cabinet member for Finance, Cllr Robert Sharp, has published his draft budget for review. Cabinet will consider it on Friday 3 Feb at 9:30. Councillors will be briefed by Finance team on Tuesday 7th Feb, and Scrutiny will review and feedback on Friday 7th at 19:00.  Cabinet and Scrutiny meetings are open to the public, at the council offices in Milton Park. The final version goes to full council on 15 Feb, 19:00 at The Beacon in Wantage.

Previously I posted the growth bid we submitted for leisure provision in Botley:  http://cllrdebbyhallett.com/2016/11/24/botley-leisure-provision/

The draft budget includes £20,000 for a two-days-per-week leisure officer to help Botley plan for what we want up at Louie Memorial fields.

There isn’t yet a commitment to the capital over two years to do the build. But here’s the plan:

“The use of capital receipts in relation to the redevelopment of West Way in Botley will be considered upon receipt. This will include a review of potential projects in the local area as well as investment opportunities to replace the loss of income from West Way. No adjustment to the capital programme is proposed at this stage to take account of either the capital receipt or any relevant expenditure.”

That basically means they don’t commit at this point to building out the pavilion scout hut, skate park and other things we’ve asked for. But if and when the profits from the sale of West Way assets are received, they will consider using some of the money for local projects. Which means our Botley Leisure project that the 2 days a week officer will help organise. !!

The other thing you may have seen (I put it on Facebook): the Leisure studies of community facilities, which are part of the evidence for the Local Plan part 2, came to Scrutiny last week. In them, one of the High Priority projects for 2018/19 and 2019/20 is “replace or refurbish Louie Memorial Pavilion and the scout hut.”

The budget takes effect in May 2017, so let’s be ready to work that officer to the full two days a week!

It’s pretty good news, after all these years of hard work.

Scrutiny -leisure and CIL

Last night at Scrutiny we looked closely at three Leisure reports that serve as part of the evidence underpinning the emerging Local Plan 2031 Part 2. 

Playing pitches (both grass and arificial grass), community halls and parks and green open spaces, children’s playgrounds, allotments will all be safe. They can only be replaced, not lost. 

Many towns and villages have facilities in need of refurbishment and replacement, and these reports suggested priorities. Many settlements are underprovided with some facilities. Again, a recommended improvements re prioritised. 

Once accepted, these reports become background to policy decisions. 

This was a large body of work taking years to produce. It will underpin planning policies and support planning application decisions for years to come. 

We also reviewed the draft CIL (community infrastructure levy) charging schedule. A lot of attention has gone into balancing the need for a schedule that’s viable for developers, but that still provides enough money to build needed infrastructure to support the levels of growth to which Vale has committed. 

I was heartened at the good quality of these studies and reports.