Friday, January 11, 2013

Budget Highs and Lows

The time is approaching when Stockton council, along with every other council in the country, has to set its budget for the next 12 months.  The story being told by the officers who are expert on such calculations is that the budget gap is going to get wider each year for the next few years and that it's going to be increasingly difficult to find ways to cut costs.  More services will have to be trimmed or cut out completely, and the only questions are about how to do it smoothly.  For this year the reserves can be used to soften the blow but there won't be reserves left to do that in future.
I'm not so pessimistic as that.  I don't believe that even Mr Pickles can imagine that people don't need services like street cleaning.  He's going to have to come to his senses and leave local authorities the ability to do what local people need them to do.  The difficulty is knowing when he'll come to that conclusion.
Meanwhile there's some really good news.  Before the general election the Liberal Democrats did some deep thinking about how to improve the life chances of children whose backgrounds don't give them the opportunities which most can benefit from.  The conclusion was that the best way to break the cycle of deprivation was to concentrate efforts on their education and especially in the early years.  One of our flagship policies in the general election campaign was the "Pupil Premium" - extra money to go direct to schools where children most in need were on the register.  The school could decide how best to spend that money as long as it made a difference to the children most needing that help.
When the coalition agreement was negotiated that policy was included - extra money for the schools to make a difference.   Despite severe pressures on the budget across the country schools have seen that money increase each year.  In 2013/14 schools in Stockton will receive almost £4.8m extra to give children that chance - to make the opportunities fairer.  Some will employ extra staff, some will buy new equipment.  Some schools get only a few thousand pounds because they don't have serious levels of deprivation to cope with.  Others will get over £100k because they have a lot of children from poor homes.
In Eaglescliffe, as we reported in Focus before Christmas, the primary schools will share £45000 and the comprehensive school will get over £60,000.  We need to make sure that it's being sensibly spent and that the young people are seeing the benefit!

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