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Opinion: This is a Preston council budget aimed at promoting fairness in our city

Posted on - 25th January, 2012 - 7:58pm | Author - | Posted in - Opinion, Politics, Preston Council

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You don’t need me to tell you again just how much government grant Preston City Council has lost since the coalition took control in Westminster – almost half – from £19 million to £11 million. So many people are in the same situation however, that I can understand it when people say ‘get on with it, just cut some of those cushy council jobs and pensions and councillors’ freebies!’

Local government has been ‘cutting the fat’ from its budgets for almost ten years now since Labour imposed year on year efficiency savings from the Gershon Review in 2003. Preston City Council shrunk considerably long before the credit crunch.

We decided to transfer our council houses to Community Gateway over five years ago because even a Labour government didn’t trust local authorities with the kind of borrowing required to bring them up to the decent homes standard.

The council’s profit-making works department then became untenable as maintenance contracts went to bigger, private sector outfits who could tender more competitively to the not-for-profit housing bodies than the public sector.

A government imposed equal pay exercise hit the council’s finances to the tune of £2.5 million. Preston council was also seriously short-changed as the Labour government’s free bus fares scheme for pensioners was inadequately funded.

This led the council to gamble on the scheme transferring to the county council rather than cut services unnecessarily. The responsibility and the costs did eventually transfer but another gamble, under-funding our city centre assets for many years on the understanding that major developers would eventually rebuild half the city centre, was lost amongst the economic uncertainty.

The credit crunch and ensuing recession led to a new government determined to balance the country’s books at any cost. The public sector is being reviewed, restructured or reduced to an unprecedented degree. The choices the council faces are ones of cuts, privatisation and mergers.

The speed and depth of the grant reductions, coupled with other budget pressures linked to the recession means that some cuts and sharing of services with other councils are unavoidable. Labour in Preston though, is fighting back. We are resisting privatisation and limiting cuts through smarter working and reducing overheads.

We are promoting policies of fairness; like the Living Wage, not the minimum wage; a credit union, not loan sharks; Worker co-ops, not shareholder profits; social lettings agency, not unscrupulous landlords; affordable housing, not unaffordable mortgages and subsidised leisure and culture for everyone

This will only be possible if the council pursues big solutions to the big problems of its deteriorating assets and decreasing income. So Labour is pursuing city centre development options that will improve the city centre offer, protects historic buildings like the covered markets, the old post office and the Harris Museum, while reducing the council’s long term costs; and investigating renewable energy schemes to replace lost income.

The budget proposals for the next four years include a mixture of short and medium term measures to manage the deficit in the interim and long term measures to solve the budget deficit within the next five to ten years.

What this budget does not take into account is the possibility of further huge cuts to government funding. It remains to be seen whether valued council services would survive another coalition onslaught.

Preston City Council’s budget 2012-2016:

You can view the full budget documents on the council website.

– £2 million committed to Preston Guild

– £2.25 million committed to Preston Markets

– £1 million+ investment in Leisure Centre improvements

– £325k initial investment into renewable energy schemes

– £50k initial investment into large affordable housing site

– £31k voluntary sector grants funding restoration – reversal of coalition cuts

– £10k new funeral support fund

– £10k PNE match day parking pilot/study

– Absolutely no cuts in funding to parks, street cleaning or community engagement.

– Burial and cremation fees frozen in 2012-13, ending the year on year hikes by the previous Con-Dem coalition.

– Continuation of £55k funding of PCSO’s despite huge government grants cuts

– Leisure centre rolling monthly membership fee frozen at £20 for unemployed

– All this for 17p per week increase in band D council tax bill

This is a guest post from Councillor Martyn Rawlinson, Labour cabinet member for resources and represents the Fishwick ward.

What do you think of the budget? Is Labour spending or saving in the right areas? Have you spotted something unusual in the figures? Let us know in the comments below

Image credit to Proud Prestonian

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