A Budget for the vulnerable

Kingston Council Budget 2017

On Tuesday the Council approved its budget for next year, including an increase in Council tax of 1.99% and in the Social Care precept of 3% - although all the increase will effectively go towards adult social care.

In 2010 the new coalition government set a path for reducing the deficit and seven years later we are still implementing those plans. Despite what our Lib Dem opposition prepares to paint as “Tory Cuts” they were actually started after the 2010 election when they were in Government. The trajectory of savings was set then and we are now implementing them. Below is a graph which shows how those savings have panned out over those years and what they clearly show is the coalition clearly felt that Local Government could make reductions at a far greater speed and depth than the parts of public service.

Of course, some things have changed on the way.

We have a growing population which gives us challenges and opportunities. On the one hand we need to build more home but it does mean that we also get the opportunity to bring new Council Tax payers into the Borough to pay for the services we value.

Critically, we have a growing older population - in fact, London's older population is growing faster than elsewhere as people are retiring into London. This is not new news. The population has been growing fast for about the last ten years and our overspending on caring for the elderly is something that both the previous Lib Dem administration and the current Conservative administration have struggled to do something about. We have all put it off and found ways to cover the overspend by reducing further spend elsewhere; typically the Lib Dems did this is in areas like parks, grass cutting and filling potholes.

But, we cannot continue like that. We need our Borough to look its best, not least because the residents here pay the highest Council Tax in London. We need to put into adult social care what it is actually costing and not just squeeze out the efficiencies as we go along - we will do that as well, but we also have to factor in the growth in numbers. 

This is why we need to increase Council Tax this year and accept the Government's 3% adult social care precept as well. That will not exclude us from finding savings in this area (there are always better ways of delivering services) but it will not be on the impact of care but in the costs of us administratively supporting that care, as well as working with our health partners to find some additional savings as we create better care.

Will this put right all our budget problems? No.

As we move to becoming independent of Government grant in 2019 we need to do a number of things.

We need to earn more income by acting more like a business in growing our income streams; Council Tax, Business Rates and charges for extra services.

We need to maximise our Council Tax income which the growth in population brings.

We need to attract as many new businesses as we can to ensure we get the maximum benefit from the 100% devolution of business rates - we won't be able to set the rate (other than reducing it marginally) but we get the income.

We need to transform the Council to be a modern Council that works in an entirely new way. We need to move from a Council that does things "to" people to one that dos things "with" people. This ‘more human’ approach is one we have talked a lot of about but now we are starting to implement.

During the recent Kingston Conversation events on the budget, there were two findings that came across. Firstly, there was a view that we should put up tax rather than cut services, but there was also a view that we need to stop doing some things and work harder to do things differently. Aligning a Council to those tasks is not easy, but I am confident that our Council officers have the will and passion to make those changes for residents.

As well as adult social care we also have real budget pressures in the area of Special Education Needs (SEN) and are having to cover significant overspends in transport costs in that area. As the graph above illustrates Education as a whole has not suffered greatly from the austerity cuts of the coalition but there are still clearly pressures and although the Local Authority has no role in setting the budgets of individual schools there are clearly going to be budget changes that schools will need to find a way through. The Kingston Education sector needs to work as a family and deal with the overspends in SEN together as it is not something the Council has the ability to do much about. In discussions with Ministers it is clear that we will shortly be seeing new guidance from Government on the future role of local authorities in schools. Already this is quite small but it will doubtless decline further as more schools become Academies.

We know that special needs is another budget area that is set to get worse and we are going to have to look at action to reduce the costs we do control in SEN. We are also having to review the future of Children's Centres. In times of tight budgets we will need to concentrate money on the most vulnerable and some of our Children's Centres are more focused on this than others. There have been closures in the past, but we will shortly be starting a consultation on some more closures. What we will not do is close centres that serve the most deprived children of the Borough.

The good news on education is that we currently have a series of new schools opening/being built and a further one being considered by Government for the Surbiton/Tolworth area. We are also supporting the opening of some special schools which we hope will resolve some of the costs of SEN.

This is a "budget for the vulnerable" - Increasing budgets where they need to be and refocusing resources towards areas that are better focused on the task at hand.

But there is not just unremitting gloom in the budget. We have found money to do some of the things residents really value based on what we have heard at Kingston and Neighbourhood conversation events. We will be investing £2m in Parks and Pavements. Our parks are better used than ever and we will be investing in upgrading play equipment and improving parks and well as starting work on reducing the backlog of pavement repairs that we desperately need. The Parks and Pavements fund went through the Council's due process earlier in February where discussions were had on other schemes that could be added at a later date.

Since the introduction of the new doorstep recycling scheme we have seen recycling rates increase and we will be doing more to improve this further with some announcements very soon. We are also looking at the “Clean Sweep” program for the Borough with the Borough wide enforcement of littering and fly-tipping as well as the roll-out of intelligent bins that will prevent them getting too full before being emptied.

Finally, I gather that our opposition complains that we do not lobby Government on issues. This is total nonsense and says more about their understanding of Government and how it works than whether we are doing our job. During the 12 years the Lib Dems controlled Kingston Council there was nothing they achieved in their lobbying. Yes, they had policy position and sometimes Government adopted them but it was nothing to do with the local Lib Dem Council but more national perspective on the issues. Even when they were in coalition they achieved nothing. It is the benefit of having a Conservative Council and a Conservative MP that makes this all possible.

We do a tremendous amount of lobbying. Only last month I was with the Secretary of State for Local Government and the week before with the Minister for Schools. I work closely with James Berry MP to ensure we get our case to Government.

Last year out lobbying led to the first ever reopening of the Local Government finance settlement and we were the Council lobbying for two years for the devolution of business rates before our work with the Treasury paid off and the Chancellor announced the policy in October 2015. We were a beacon when it came to lobbying Government to take more Syrian refugees from within the camps.

Lobbying does work, but like a child asking a parent for sweets, it does not work well when you stamp your foot and scream but can work well when you cooperate with Government to help them find a solution. Some parties see winning elections. You can go to any Labour or Conservative MP or Minister and the only thing they will agree with is that neither can work with the Lib Dems. In two years we have achieved more with Government than the Lib Dems achieved in the entire 12 years they were in power, even during the time of the coalition.

There is still much to do to change the Council, deliver services that meet the growing demands of the Borough as well as keeping Kingston the safest, cleanest and most desirable place to live in London. This budget supports those objectives and I hope residents will support it.