Saturday, November 10, 2012

This was a week of briefings from senior officers in the council - as the setting of the budget for next year, and hence the Council Tax level, comes ever closer they are concerned to make sure that the councillors don't make decisions that can't be implemented.  For many years now Stockton Borough Council has made rolling 3 year budget arrangements, looking ahead to be able to plan more effectively.  Occasionally central government steps in and makes a decision which throws those arrangements out of kilter.  Unfortunately this government is more prone to that kind of behaviour than expected.  On the one hand Localism is the mantra, and Stockton has benefitted from some of those decisions, but on the other the Secretary of state claws decision making back to the centre.  For 2011/12 we had a council tax freeze imposed, with a grant equivalent to a 2.5% rise coming from central government.  That was about 0.5% less than SBC would have spent but it was possible to find more efficient ways of doing things and save that money.  That of course was on top of the cuts in funding already made.
In 2012/13 we were offered the equivalent of a 2.5% rise if the tax were frozen again.  This was another cut in the predicted budget for Stockton and the council decided it was too much of a cut - too many services would have to be cut.  Stockton took almost 3% rise.
For next year we are being offered 1% to freeze the rate, and told that we can't increase above 2% without a referendum.  Holding a referendum is a very costly exercise, with ballot papers to print, postal ballot envelopes to print and pay for the postage on, polling booths to run etc.  A 2% rise will mean further cuts in services, starting to hit now the front line services that we all see and many of us use.  There will be a big debate in the coming months over which are the most important services and how they can be preserved.  How much of a cut can other services take and still be there?  Some hard decisions ahead and Lib Dems will be trying  to engage with residents as much as possible to explain the options and to come up with ideas that are acceptable.

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