This week, I will be proposing that Preston Council raise its share of the council tax bill by just under 2 per cent. My own monthly payment of £107 will rise by just over £2 if, as expected, Lancashire County Council, Lancashire Police and Lancashire Fire & Rescue follow suit.
It’s no secret that these four authorities have had the grant they receive from government slashed since 2010. The grant for Preston will reduce by a further 16 per cent next year…but that’s not the reason for the council tax rise. A council tax rise linked to inflation is currently the only way to protect spending on vital public services.
I know that most taxpayers will be unhappy with the rise. I also know that lots of people think that councils waste a lot of money. So what are the options other than raise council tax?
One of the first reactions to a proposed rise is always, ‘why don’t councillors take a pay cut instead?’
Well, we could, is the answer. We could freeze council tax, for one year only, by cutting Councillors’ allowances by about two-thirds. This would leave a backbench Councillor on about £30 a week; and although this would only help freeze council tax for one year, allowances would be reduced indefinitely, because that saving would then be built into the budget forever more.
Preston’s Members Allowances scheme is by no means one of the most generous to begin with; the allowance was frozen for about seven years, until we took a 1 per cent rise this year. I’m quite sure that before long, we would be desperately short of candidates, especially younger ones (which we already are). If you’re happy being governed by a wealthy gerontocracy then it’s an option, but it doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, I would say that an out of touch and unrepresentative government is probably what has caused most of this country’s problems. I recently asked a blogger who had suggested a councillor pay cut, if they would do the job for nothing…he said ‘not on your life!’
Another option is to accept the government’s ‘incentive,’ to freeze council tax. We have been offered the equivalent of 1 per cent of our council tax revenue, as a single, one-off payment, to freeze the bill. This would leave the council almost one hundred thousand pounds short in its financial forecast for the coming year and almost two hundred thousand short every year after that; which brings us to our next option…find further savings in order to freeze council tax.
In 2011 Preston Council was forced to make approximately three million pounds in savings; and in 2014, another three and a half million pounds. Our income has fallen from around thirty million pounds a year to nineteen million pounds.
Miraculously, I’m struggling to think of a service that has ceased completely. To save money, we have delivered solutions on assets like the Bus Station and the Guild Hall, we have merged services with other councils, used new technology to work smarter and more cheaply, installed green energy, reduced spending on traditional civic functions like the Mayor’s office, bought the Mayor a second hand car and even tried to sell the Mayor’s number plate!
We could always be more efficient, and we never stop looking for opportunities; but there is nothing left to cut that wouldn’t hurt some section of Preston’s community deeply. The obvious ones are parks and leisure services, debt and welfare advice services and the support we give to community activity across the city. The health and wellbeing outcomes that would be damaged by removing any of these services, in a city with massive health and social inequalities to begin with, don’t bear thinking about.
Yet we are having to think about it, because the financial forecast now displays another black hole in 2018, due to the knock on effect of cuts to Lancashire County Council and being unable to replace other lost income streams.
Although the budget has been slashed, staff reduced and services stretched or remodelled, we have won millions of pounds in lottery grants for Winckley Square and Moor Park, helped to deliver City Deal and develop our Fairness agenda, including the imminent launch of a new credit union. Also, the council events program and the partnership working with BID, LCC and UCLAN amongst others, is starting to reap dividends on city centre regeneration with new bars and restaurants opening monthly.
Local government is the most efficient and effective part of the public sector and whoever wins the general election needs to look elsewhere for further savings. Many councils that managed to freeze council tax in the last few years are now proposing rises because standing still is not sustainable. I wouldn’t propose a council tax rise if I didn’t believe that Preston Council provided value for money.
The small rise will help us protect your parks and leisure services, the award winning sports development team and the free advice services while we concentrate on taking Preston forward. We just need a government that will allow us to do that…
What do you think? How would you balance the books? Let us know in the comments below
Councillor Martyn Rawlinson is the cabinet member for resources and finance at Preston City Council