Opinion: Martyn Rawlinson explains the council budget for the year ahead

Posted on - 1st March, 2014 - 4:34pm | Author - | Posted in - Opinion, Politics, Preston Council
Martyn Rawlinson

Martyn Rawlinson

This is not budgeting anymore…it’s survival.


In 2009/10 Preston Council had an income of just under £30million – by 2015 it’s income will me just under £23million; most of that reduction is government grants. When you take into account inflation and increases in fees and charges in that period, then the loss of income overall is even greater.

If people think that this government are doing them any favours by trying to freeze or reduce their council tax then they are sorely mistaken. The cost of living is outstripping wage rises every single month. There is no recovery, certainly not for working people. Employment is up because of part-time jobs, unsustainable self employment and increasing numbers of women forced to leave their families and go out to work, many of whom will be in minimum wage jobs. People are just surviving, just like this council is trying to do, just trying to survive this government.

Lancashire County Council under the Conservatives actually managed to reduce council tax by a couple of per cent, by stripping staff of terms and conditions and by a privatisation programme which has since collapsed among police investigations and house raids. That’s what you get when you try to provide vital public services on the cheap, it doesn’t work and the private sector exploits public money for profit.

Public sector staff get a lot of very unfair criticism. The staff and officers of Preston Council never cease to amaze me. Whether they’re organising a massive celebration like Preston Guild over several years, or a huge civic funeral at short notice, they always deliver, and service delivery doesn’t suffer in the meantime.

This budget is a team effort like never before. Officers, staff and councillors are all contributing, with sacrifices, with ideas and making those tough decisions we always get accused of avoiding.

It is also the most transparent budget we’ve ever produced…6.2.1 of the report (p20) tells you exactly how we did it. Section 8 explains the factors influencing our decision making, there is pages of background material, the risks this forecast is carrying are documented and then the budget proposals themselves. This is an absolutely comprehensive report.

We looked everywhere, before we looked at jobs. We are making savings from asset management, from upgrading technology, from reviewing capital projects, from income generation, from changing shift patterns – but the cuts to government grant are just too deep to avoid job losses.

There is too much in this report to comment on everything but I’ll give you some of the highlights, and the lowlights…

As part of the savings, we have removed approximately half the budget for the Guild Hall from April 2015. That’s the only way we can balance this budget without destroying even more important services. We are doing absolutely everything we can to find a sustainable solution for the Guild Hall within our resources, and we will continue to search for that solution as long as possible.

Some of the savings proposals are still target figures, we only received final settlement figures recently, there was so much work to do in such a short space of time that we are still working through the finer detail.

Parks is a popular service where a major saving has to be made to close our funding gap. This is an area we want to develop, not cut back on, the parks and open spaces throughout Preston are arguably its best feature. But you can’t remove a quarter of the councils budget and not expect to see a difference.

Street cleaning reductions are something new for us too – again, we are working on the detail and operationally we will do our best to mitigate the cuts, but people may notice the difference.

Food waste collection is likely to be limited to what you can put in your wheelie bin. The green bin service was introduced when putting food in your wheelie was not recommended, but that’s not the case now and a cash saving can be made.

Our prized leisure centres are faced with tough income targets over the next few years to increase their sustainability. These services will need to continually improve to compete but the plan that Tom Burns has left us with will hopefully save the leisure centres from this governments slash and burn policy for local services.

Despite proposed budget savings, we will continue to more than meet our obligations on crime and disorder and community safety.

We hope to find new uses for the Citizen Zone with partners, so that it will continue to be of benefit to the people of Preston.

To help us maintain vital services like debt and benefits advice, who are literally keeping people off the street, and community engagement who are supporting so many community groups in the city, we are proposing a council tax increase of just under 2%, approx. 10p a week.

To those who say we are not fighting the cuts – we are fighting the cuts in a much more meaningful way than just refusing to set a budget.

Councillor Hudson called for a bold vision, the Living wage, affordable credit, affordable homes, renewable energy, community wealth building, the cultural framework, regeneration for this city, is our vision.

The council continues to bid for external funding to improve the city, following successful bids for Wickley Sq. and the Cenotaph, we are bidding for more funds for the markets and Moor park.

We embraced the governments City Deal policy and were quickest off the mark in the whole country. We need to make sure that this is not just another government plan to suck money from the public sector into private hands. City Deal will make Preston bigger, it’s our job to see that it makes Preston better, and Cabinet adopted the Preston masterplan yesterday.

Linked to this, the leader and the officers have been instrumental in forming the Key Cities group which promises to be a valuable new lobbying body for medium sized cities.

It’s amazing that we have so much to be positive about given the financial position.

We still need to pursue further shared services, smarter working and income generation because many services are cut to the bone. We also need more borrowing and spending capacity for asset management, capital projects, expansion of the fairness agenda and to develop Tom’s cultural framework.

The Capital budget will support the credit union and tackling empty homes.

We will use reserves to cover one-off expenditure if necessary. It’s unsustainable to use reserves for anything else.

Investments continue to perform poorly, over the next 12 months we will be looking at squeezing more social value out of the banking contract renewal and reviewing the treasury management policy to improve performance on both financial and social value aspects of investment returns.

We are driving Preston forward and striving to make Preston a fairer place to live, despite this governments policies, not because of them. Let’s not argue today about a handful of service areas or 10p a week, get behind this budget, get behind our vision and help us mitigate the government cuts, preserve our services as much as possible and continue to deliver value for money.

What do you think? Do you agree with council tax going up? Let us know your views in the comments below

Councillor Martyn Rawlinson is the cabinet member for finance and resources. He also represents Fishwick.

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