FULL Council meets tonight to consider our budget proposals for the 2018/9 financial year.
This marks the end of a process that officially started last April and has seen a huge amount of work carried out examining all kinds of financial options and projections.
Given the huge pressures we face, it has also inevitably meant a lot of soul-searching as we strive to balance the books and protect vital services.
Since 2009 Oldham Council has now lost more than a third of its workforce and more than £200 million in Government funding – with up to another £20 million in savings to potentially find again next year.
Nobody goes into politics to put Council Tax up or to make cuts to key services but for the past decade these have been the pressures driving much of our deliberations.
We manage this challenge well in Oldham and have so far avoided some of the more drastic cuts that other authorities have made in areas like children’s centres, libraries, leisure centres and parks – but you can only dodge a bullet for long.
Councils up and down the country like ours also know that the tax rises they have planned won’t offset the cuts they are experiencing.
Across England extra Council Tax will bring in an estimated £1.1bn in the next financial year which nowhere near covers the £1.4bn cut in central government funding.
These austerity-led cuts are not sustainable and the difficulties at Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire County Council – which essentially declared itself bankrupt earlier this month – shows that none of us are exempt from the strain.
What is happening there is just a snapshot of the difficulties all councils are facing: a growing population and one that lives longer, children that need more care and people that are struggling to get on in life, get on the property ladder, and have falling living standards and incomes. Rising demand, falling budgets.
Adults and children’s services are particularly underfunded with no clear solution in sight. We have an £8m pressure on the children’s’ services budget this year alone and councils can’t just keep dipping into reserves or selling buildings and land to get by.
The Government’s ‘answer’ to all this is to make councils rely in future on their Business Rates income, but as things stand that system will simply perpetuate inequalities and make them worse.
Areas with bigger business rates are already better funded and places with smaller business rate bases, like Oldham, will get poorer by comparison.
Next year, for the very first time, our Business Rates will constitute more of our income than what we get from Central Government support and that is a watershed moment.
We urgently need fair funding from Westminster and clarity about the future funding model for local services. There are few commitments on what lies ahead and finance settlements are typically thrown to us at the very latest possible moment, which also hampers our medium and long-term planning.
Here at Oldham Council what we must focus on is what we can influence and do ourselves to tackle this crisis.
We are, for example, working hard to transform our ‘fiscal base’ – changing the sources of where our future income comes from – and that’s why the Oldham Town Centre Masterplan is so important with the boost to the economy, jobs and Business Rates it will produce.
But what is most frustrating about all this is the effect on residents. People in places like Oldham are being told to pay more, but also to expect to get less for their money. That doesn’t bode well for democracy, trust or local services.
The Government’s current stance on funding points to a bleak future where councils like ours would only be able to deliver statutory services – those we are legally obliged to.
Oldham has suffered more than most areas from the cuts and it’s time the Government put real measures and funding behind its rhetoric about preventing people being ‘left behind’.
I want to close today by thanking Councillor Abdul Jabbar, our finance team and all those members and officers involved in the difficult task of preparing this budget.
There is little sense of relief as we’re already thinking hard about what happens next year and beyond, but I promise that our work to try and increase our income and the prospects of local people will continue.
It is needed now more than ever.