Ian Shires

Liberal Democrat Councillor for Willenhall North Ward, Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Walsall MBC Learn more

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Walsall Council meets tonight to decide budget

by Ian Shires on 23 February, 2017

Walsall Council meets tonight in full session tonight to debate the budget being put forward by the Labour/LibDem administration for 2017 to 2021 against the backdrop of continuing austerity measures by the Conservatives at Westminster.

Since 2010 Walsall Council has had to reduce spending by £123 million and now is being told they will have to find a further £86 million over the next four years. This at a time when demand for services is on the increase especially in the areas of Social care and Children’s Services. As a result Walsall Council Tax Payers are faced with a 1.99% Council Tax increase plus a 3% increase in the precept introduced last year ring-fenced to Social Care. This will bring in around £6 million to off-set a reduction of around £34 million in support from central government this coming year. This is not just happening in Walsall, many other councils across England face the same dilemma.

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 by the Labour/LibDem administration 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 of collapse and that we as elected members get no pleasure from having to do the Government’s dirty work for them.

There have been suggestions by some 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 have to 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 impose 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 Walsall Council got perilously close to this position. 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 31%. 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?

Getting 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?

Image result for tories win general election 2015For 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 who would have been very happy with that; that was the result of a democratic decision across the UK 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, under the Tories, Walsall 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, the balance of power on 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.

Having gone through the pain, our challenge now is to see this budget through ensuring we expose the Tories at Westminster for what they really are, hard-hearted, hard-nosed and hard up for ideas!

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