by Ian Shires on 24 February, 2017
The Labour/Liberal Democrat Coalition succeeded in getting their four-year Budget Plan through at last night’s special Budget council meeting though storm Doris almost plunged the Council into chaos as one Labour Councillor was stranded in the East Midlands. Thankfully he arrived before the crucial vote on the Budget proposals.
Regular readers will know that around 70% of the Council’s budget relies on Government funding, Council Tax brings in around 17% the rest is made up of Charges and Business Rates. So when the Tories under Theresa May announced that there would be no new money for Social Care and no let up on her Government’s blind pursuit of austerity measures, it became obvious that councils across the land would need to increase Council Tax above inflation and add the 3% Social Care precept allowed by the Government in a desperate bid to claw-back some of the cutbacks in this vital service area.
“Clearly the thought of an above inflation Council Tax increase along with cuts in local services will have angered many residents not only here in Walsall but across most of the country. Who can blame them?
We can’t have failed to have heard local people joining in with this unrest in the months leading on from when we started consultation on some 90+ proposals put forward back in November on how we might deal with the threat to services posed by the Government’s continuing austerity measures and their restrictions on Council Tax increases
I would like to think that people have recognised just who is responsible for bringing local services to the brink and that we as elected members get no pleasure from having to do the Government’s dirty work for them.
There have been suggestions that we should stand our ground and say no to the cuts that are being imposed upon all councils. If it were that easy then rest assured we would have already done that but, like most things in life, things are never as straightforward as they seem.
There is one overriding factor in all of this, we must produce a balanced budget. Any other action would not be legal, in which case the Council’s Senior Finance Officer would be directed by Westminster to step in and produce a balanced budget.
That would prove to be very difficult if not impossible, in which case the Government would send in a team of civil servants to impose cuts on the residents of Walsall.
Back in 2002 we got perilously close to this. Back then the Senior Management Team was dismissed, a new more expensive Team put in place and Council Tax was increased by 19.9%. Do we really want to go down that road again? Would the people of Walsall thank us for not facing up to our responsibilities? I think not.
There is another way. We could do nothing. We would have to go out to a referendum to increase Council Tax to cover the Government imposed funding cut.
In simple terms that would mean that the people of Walsall would be asked to approve a Council Tax increase of around 34%. It wouldn’t stop there either because there would be double digit Council Tax increases the year after and the year after that. Hardly bears thinking about does it?
So, back to the real world.
Why are we where we are in respect of the unprecedented funding cuts at a time when there is an ever-increasing demand for our services?
For the answer to that question you would have to cast your mind back to May 2015. The year of the General Election, the result of which gave us this Tory Government we have today. Whether we like it or not; and I suspect there are many to my right who would have been very happy with this; that was the democratic result and just like the Brexit result last June we have to live with it.
By voting in a Tory Government people had voted for more and harsher austerity measures. So, what does that mean for the residents of Walsall?
In a nutshell, it means that no matter who is running this Council they will have to find ways of saving £86 million by 2020.
In recent years, this Council has lurched from one year to the next salami slicing services to the extent that were we to continue down that line we would end up with a dysfunctional Council failing in its responsibilities to the people of Walsall.
In May, last year following the local elections, this Council stood on a knife edge and for the first-time Labour and the Liberal Democrats with the slenderest of majorities, formed a progressive alliance with a plan to deliver a four-year budget. A budget which would protect as far as possible the most vulnerable within our society. A Budget process which would genuinely give the people of Walsall a say in how its services would be delivered over the next four years. A budget which allows things to be done differently and actually allows us to build investment back into key services like Social care and Children’s Services.
Neither the Tories or their stablemates UKIP had any alternative budget proposals to put forward, no amendment to save any of the Libraries which have had to be sacrificed to prevent further cuts to Social Care and Children’s Services. On being put to the vote the Budget was agreed on the Mayor’s casting vote.
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