The Advertiser is running a series of election features in the run up to the local ballot on May 2. All of the Royal Borough’s 41 seats will be up for grabs. Each week, the Advertiser will cover a key topic, focusing on what the parties’ policies are on a particular issue. This week reporter Kieran Bell asked the candidates for their view on the recently passed 2019/20 budget, and what it promises for the borough. Parties also set out what they would do differently with their money if they were to take charge in May.
This is a budget for all in the borough – the young, the elderly, the vulnerable, the council’s employees and every council taxpayer who expected their council to tax them fairly and expected the council to prioritise the services they valued.
Confidence in this budget has been validated by:
W The absence of any changes at any of the overview and scrutiny panels which were not fully reflected by changes made to the budget presented to all councillors.
W The support given by Conservative and opposition councillors.
W Not being one of 53 per cent of councils planning to reduce reserves and instead increase them by £3.5m.
W Not being one of 24 per cent reducing children’s services.
W Not being one of 38 per cent expecting to spend less on roads and instead planning a £12.7m capital programme.
W Not being one of 22 per cent reducing their waste collection services.
This budget promises to:
W Fund the growing needs of vulnerable residents, devoting £5m more to children’s, adults and public health services.
W Prioritise other resident priorities in environmental health, trees, Norden Farm and maintaining important bus routes.
W Allocate £0.3m for grants to charities and other organisations.
W Contribute an additional £4m into the employees’ pension scheme.
W Invest £12.7m in highways, pavements and bridges, £10.3m in resident facilities in education, schools, leisure, trees, libraries, CCTV, green open spaces, £4.5m in new refuse collection vehicles and £2.9m in other infrastructure.
This budget assures residents:
W Officers’ determination to optimise £5.4m of planned efficiencies across all spending without reducing services.
W Unavoidable additional demands for local services, particularly to support young, elderly and vulnerable residents. Could and will be funded by the prudent allocation to reserves of £3.5m.
W Effective use of the homelessness prevention and relief fund through specialist officers.
W Capital receipts from regeneration investments and developer contributions will fully repay the £57m of borrowing inherited 12 years ago from the previous administration.
The budget was both a missed opportunity and a mystery.
It was a missed opportunity because it is not geared to deliver a bold and coherent vision for all the people in Maidenhead rather than the small minority who can access its largely unaffordable housing.
The Tories persist with the notion that they are creating choice in schools when we all know that the only choice exercised in schools is by the schools. They also persist in delivering some of their services particularly social care using people on zero hours contracts who provide their own transport and are not paid travelling time between upward of eight to 10 calls per day.
The net result is that they are effectively paid at less than minimum wage. This is not sustainable and is an accident waiting to happen which will impact on the well-being of the old and vulnerable in society.
It is a mystery because it is impossible to get clarity on why a council after years of not bothering has suddenly decided to increase the council tax and then put more than the yield from that into reserves which its own risk analysis shows to be already larger than required to meet the worst combination of circumstances.
A Labour budget would be designed to deliver a bold vision. This jewel on the Thames should be the best town in Berkshire to live and work in, it should have the best housing, the best education, the best social and shopping environment, the best healthcare, the best social care and a recycling revolution.
I cannot give chapter and verse on how our budget will look because so much of the real detail is not in the public domain. I can, however, guarantee that we would commission a thorough audit of past and future expenditure and go over any existing contracts with a fine tooth comb.
The council’s finances are in appalling shape. In just one year, the council found itself overspending by £8m – over 10 per cent of the total budget.
Short-term savings with appalling long-term consequences are the reason. Increasing car park charges has resulted in less income because fewer people come into town, the highways contract may be cheap on paper, but we end up paying extra for potholes to be repaired and graffiti to be removed, and use of expensive agency staff has massively increased.
Lib Dems would prioritise long-term solutions with better control of outsourcing contracts. We’d look at bringing some services back in-house, reducing the use of contract staff, and getting the car park payment system right.
We will also cut the council promotions budget, so there’ll be no more lamp-post banners or £80,000 promotional videos if the Lib Dems are in charge.
The Conservatives have committed to council tax rises of three per cent which is the maximum the Government allows. We want to keep council tax increases below that and will not raise council tax by more than three per cent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
We are also concerned about the council policy of selling off our land. This ownership not only gives the council more control of what developers do, it also generates income that can be used to subsidise services.
Debt is another huge problem. The council debt that was inherited from the former county council has been around £50 million for years, but now the council’s own predictions see it increasing to £340 million over the next few years. The interest payments alone will be huge.
Regaining control of the budget, reviewing current contracts, getting debt under control and ending the sale of the ‘family silver’ have to be priorities for us at the council.
The Borough First
It was clear in 2015 that central funding would continue to reduce and costs relating to children’s and adult social care and waste collection would continue to rise, but council tax was continually cut to meet Conservative national policy.
By July 2018 it was obvious that the 2018/19 budget was inadequate, resulting in a £7.7m overspend, and the 19/20 budget includes £10.6m of further costs requiring further ‘mitigations’.
This year we tried to protect youth services, schools and early years, increase efficiency with in-house highways planning and invest to aid the causes of homelessness. The Conservatives refused to even debate this.
With only 1/3 of the officers remaining since 2011, there is a serious loss of skills.
Some services are good (i.e. waste collections), but cuts have severely impacted on important projects like the BLP, Waterways, Stafferton Link, homeless reduction and social housing. Even our new parking machines don’t work!
Previous decisions setting non-achievable savings targets and dangerously reducing capacity has lead to overspend on projects. There is no money for the promised Oaks Leisure Centre or further physical expansion of schools and their only option is to sell assets or borrow c£230m, all predicated on receipts from developing Maidenhead Golf Club. Given the status of the BLP we don’t think that’s going happen any time soon.
This ‘low council tax’ authority is now increasing tax by the maximum 2.99% for four years. ‘Innovative’ and ‘prudent’ are not the words we would use for the last eight years of political budgeting strategy and yet they are still making irresponsible spending promises.