About This Blog

The public should know all we can about the business of the decision makers that affect our lives, our wallets and our democracy. This is a record of my efforts to try and improve the levels of transparency and accountability within Sheffield City Council and others. To shine a light on how decisions are made and where the money goes. If I can also help others to find their own voice and influence along the way, then that is a bonus.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

sheffield city council, budget conversation of 21st october 2014, by nigel slack.

A quick headcount at the start of the meeting suggested some 100 or so people there and the mix was fairly even in genders but largely older adults with a scatter of younger ones. Better than the usual collection of older types that inhabit these events (Me included).

A brief opening statement by John Mothersole (Chief Executive) was followed by some context for the presentation by Cllr Ben Curran (Cabinet Member Finance & Resources).

As part of that context he reminded us that the figures discussed were not definitive but subject to change depending on the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, which would indicate the extent of Government plans to further cut public spending, and the announcement in late December of the Local Government Settlement, which would give exact figures for the cuts to each council's grant from government.

The headline figure however forecasts a need to reduce council spending by £60M in 2015/16. It was noted at this stage that this is in the year when the Chancellor, George Osborne, had predicted that austerity would be over. The slides for the presentation are here, and are relatively self explanatory.

SCC budget Presentation Slideshow

The rest of my comments will be to highlight points brought out in the presentation not on the slides and to report something of the question and answer session. The first few slides were there to illustrate the level of the cuts to local government budgets, the highest percentage cuts apart from the welfare budget, and that there is significant opinion and evidence that the cuts are not being applied either evenly across all councils or taking into account different levels of need.

The latter slides in Cllr Curran's part of the presentation attempt to illustrate the scale of the cuts already made, 2015/16 will mean £300M lost from council spend since 2010, and the administration's belief that they have been able to maintain their principles and their ambition for the city. This included the plans for 5,000 new homes built over the next three years, thousands of apprenticeships to try and tackle our youth unemployment levels and introducing the living wage to all council employees and 80% of contract company employees. (a subject I chased with both councillors and officers from an early stage)

The presentation then moved to John Mothersole for the more detailed facts and figures and the approach the council were considering.

The initial slides in this part illustrated the relatively small amount of the budget that the council has discretion over. From a total £1.4Bn budget most is spent on services fixed by either government, education or housing needs. This leaves only £477M of discretionary spend. So with the 2015/16 cuts the contribution to the city from government grants will have fallen by 50% and that discretionary budget by 30%.

All this is being done in the face of a growing population in the city and a weak economic outlook for both the city, the country and the world. The growing population and cost pressures such as inflation also mean there is less service can be delivered with the same amount of money from this budget.

The presentation then went on to discuss the approach the council are looking to take and some of the things already done to achieve savings in the past. It also illustrated some changes that may have a positive impact on the city's budget, such as the New Homes Bonus and Community Infrastructure Charge on developers which could raise over £11M in the medium term, so not all for 2015/16. An even greater impact would be for central government to release more of the business rates they keep, £129M back to the city, without this it remains difficult for the council to reduce business rates (for start up small businesses etc.) without further impact on budgets.

One slide shows the confused position on money available and what is available to cut. Total public spending in Sheffield is £4.5Bn, the council's share of that in direct services is £800M much of the rest is spent via the council but on things like schools, health, transport and emergency services. Ringfenced money. Of the £800M some of that is also ringfenced for fixed budgets and so the money where the council can find cuts is only £477M. The council is therefore aiming to try and get more control over the total £800M and be able to use it more imaginatively and effectively as a result. Whether government will let go of these strings is questionable, whatever colour is in power.

The final slides were about how we, the public, can get involved. I think this is important, because without some offer of alternative ideas we will be stuck with whatever the councillors decide. The council think this is important because they can then say we were asked even when we don't like their answers.

The event then moved into a question and answer phase. The questions were mostly about clarification off certain budget areas and things like the difference between capital and revenue. The short answer to that is capital money is for one off projects (usually buildings etc) and revenue is for day to day running expenses. Like buying a car, that is capital. Petrol, insurance, car tax, that's revenue.

One person asked about the way the government fixed the amount of the money they distribute to councils. The answer essentially was that it is now based on population in the main and the need or deprivation of a council area is less and less important in the calculation. This is illustrated by the way city councils are proportionally worse hit by cuts than leafy rural southern counties, some of whom have seen increased levels of government grant.

I asked whether the new Sheffield City Region Combined Authority would be able to look at shared services between authorities to benefit from economies of scale and service efficiencies over bigger areas. The response was that this was possible in the medium to long term but unlikely to be in time to affect 2015/16 budget. I also asked whether there was any sign that the government might move it's position on the business rates retention. The response to this was a flat no.

The meeting wrapped at 7.30pm but there will be much more to come on this. I urge everyone to look at the information on the slides, think about the services they receive or contribute to and what could be done differently. We can't get away from this and even a change in government looks unlikely to change the impact for 2015/16, much as we might hope they would come to their senses and realise that austerity and spending cuts are making matters worse not better. Lobby your councillors, lobby your MPs, make your voice heard in the community and in the corridors of power.

Finally, the council's twee video presentation is below. It views a bit like a budget for toy town but I guess it helps get the basics out there and hopefully makes people think.

SCC Budget Video Presentation.

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