The council must live within its means and do so sustainably while maintaining services residents depend upon.
This isn’t easy, local government has long been considered the most efficient part of the public sector, yet since the General Election it has endured the greatest reduction in income. Clearly there’s a limit to how efficient councils can become and we’re fast approaching that point.
Last month, the council approved a new budget strategy, one which responds to central government cuts and looks to protect local services. Rather than focusing on cuts we’re working to increase the council’s income through better use of the council’s resources and investments.
Nevertheless, council tax will remain frozen next year. The Tories have spoken of a council tax bombshell and let’s put that claim to rest, not only is that not on the cards it actually can’t happen without public approval at a local referendum. The claim is simply not true.
More worrying is the Conservative’s opposition to the council adopting a longer-term approach to budgeting, worrying because it shows an inability to understand local government finance.
Firstly, councils are increasingly reliant on investments and retained business rates; unfortunately this means the council’s income is now much more volatile as it is directly affected by market conditions in any given year. Rather than cutting away at services one year only to find income significantly higher the next we need a long-term approach to budgeting, using underspends from good years to balance overspends in bad years. This ensures continuity of services and long-term budget stability.
Secondly, some income generation and efficiency measures are going to take time. By enabling council officers to plan over several years we can focus on making the right changes and not just the fastest ones. Increasing flexibility gives the council more options for preserving services while balancing the budget, that’s good for residents.
I fully expect the council will close the budget gap this year but a strategy needs about what is best to provide for Crawley in the long-term, rather than the short-termism we saw under the Conservatives. Residents come first, not right-wing dogma.