This week saw the first full meeting of Policy & Resources committee under the new system of decision making on Brighton & Hove City Council.
There were many important issues on the agenda including revising the corporate plan for the next year and agreeing a letter to government in support of equal marriage proposals. You can read the full agenda here.
However the vast majority of the meeting and the interest was focussed on two reports. The first was the final budget update on the last financial year which ended this April. This showed that in its first year the Green administration had, despite biting government funding cuts, been able to carefully manage the council to a £4.37m underspend. This was good news as it gives us a bit of flexibility in dealing with the unexpected. But context is important as this amounts to being just 2% off a fully balanced budget (one that was neither under nor overspent), so not much in the grand scheme of a large council like ours.
Much of the report was on the detailed management and accounting logistics needed when projects run over two financial years with grants needing to be carried forward. It also noted that we achieved £7.53m in savings from the Value for Money Programme in the last year. Which rather took the wind out of the sails of the opposition who had been focussed on attacking Greens for being reckless, idealistic and unable to manage things.
So of course rather than acknowledging the the first year’s finances had gone well (and I should admit a personal interest here having been the Cabinet Member for Finance in that year!) they took a new tack by attacking the underspend.
Now most of that underspend, £3.187m to be precise, was already spent in the February budget-setting meeting to help with the budget year we are now in. The opposition were more than happy to raid it for their amendments back then. This left £1.183m to be allocated at the committee this week.
It is important to note that this underspend is one-off money, it’s not a recurring amount we can count on each year like income from rents or council tax. So when it’s spent, that’s it. Our report proposed leaving £521k to cover costs relating to Saltdean Lido and to help with unexpected pressures in the 2013/14 budget-setting.
Then we sought to put £662k into a number of areas (full details are at the bottom of this document) including one year cover for a childcare service associated with Brighton Womens’ Centre until a new government funding stream comes through and funding to support the huge number of events we will be seeing in the city this summer. Vitally we allocated £150k to fund a bid for £5m in government grants to get ultrafast broadband in the city. We hope to tie this in with free wifi in the city and continuing to support the high growth digital sector we are lucky to have. Unfortunately there are some very complex legalities associated with the bidding process, which is why need to put money aside for it, but it will deliver huge benefits for the city’s economic future.
Our long term thinking vs opposition’s short termism
We also allocated £250k for projects including automatic water metering and energy audits of key council buildings. These projects will be led by the sustainability team and help us meet our One Planet Council targets, but ultimately they save us money. With pilot work in the Brighton Centre we’ve already saved the council tens of thousands by changing how energy and water are used.
Regardless of the good sense of these plans, unfortunately the opposition decided these were ‘pet’ or ‘vanity’ projects and sought to attack them suggesting saving money and resources, and the economic development of our city, were unnecessary distractions. Personally I want to see a vibrant, digital city and I would rather be spending council funds on positive things than wasted water and heat!
Labour councillors proposed an amendment to take all the money from the sustainability projects and spend it on buses apart from £24k on the Mobile Library. This related to their amendment to the budget in February which only partially funded a new Mobile Library back then. They’ve been hoping someone else will step in to fund the gap in their amendment, but so far we’ve had no offers. The one-off £24k they sought in the amendment was still not enough (it’s recurring annual budget we’re short of) and we cannot buy a new mobile vehicle if there’s no annual budget to run it – that would be utterly irresponsible.
The sum for the bus budget was also unable to make much of a difference because we were about to be debating a 4 year contract which a one-off sum of £226k Labour wanted to throw in didn’t make much sense, but more on that in a moment.
The Labour amendment, despite Tory support fell. But rather than vote for the positive items in this budget report such as on ultrafast broadband, childcare, summer events and so on all the Tory and Labour councillors voted against the report so I used my casting vote as chair to ensure it passed.
The bus issue
So, as colleagues have explained on this blog post, we had to review subsidised bus contracts. The government has cut its support to bus operators by 20%, fuel prices have increased and councils have had their budgets cut substantially by government.
Even if we had been able to keep our budget unchanged, the increased costs bus operators were experiencing meant we’d have only ever been able to afford to support fewer bus services. But sadly we had to reduce our budget. Why? Ultimately because the central government are cutting council funding harder and faster than for any other part of government.
In spite of the scale of the cuts, we sought to take a much smaller reduction from the bus subsidy budget than other areas of the council budget, because we know how important buses are. At the budget council meeting this February both Labour and Tory groups presented an array of amendments – none of which sought to change our proposals on the bus subsidy budget. Furthermore all the opposition councillors very unusually voted for the whole budget including the unamended bus subsidy section.
They absurdly claimed this week that this didn’t mean they supported everything they had voted for: if you don’t support something don’t vote for it! Opposition groups usually abstain on the council budget and they could have done again so this February.
So let us be absolutely clear that both Labour and Tory groups voted for these reductions in the bus subsidy budget. Then both leaders of the opposition groups more recently had the offer of one-on-one briefings with the officers on this topic. Additionally they attended a meeting that I chaired with officers to review the draft agenda for this week’s Policy & Resources committee.
They were even shown extra print-outs of all the bus route data and tendering process at that meeting. Did they ask a single question, raise any concerns or seek to amend any of the reports? No, they had absolutely nothing to say, they agreed that the papers should proceed to publication.
If they were genuinely concerned about the principle, the detail or the process they had been given many opportunities to do something about the bus subsidies, but they didn’t. However in the last few days suddenly they have decided to “save the buses” and continue now, such as with this Labour online post.
Let’s call their behaviour what it is – cynical positioning to seek political capital. Their amendments, as the copious notes from the Finance Director showed, were highly problematic and short-termist (see here and here). Robbing good spend-to-save plans such as on water usage to show that they wanted to be seen to save the buses, in ways they knew couldn’t and wouldn’t succeed. Major procurements are difficult and complex procedures which cannot be altered by amendments submitted on the morning of a meeting. Again, when they had so much notice of what was happening why did they not prepare amendments earlier?
We have sought to cause the minimum harm possible in the face of cuts and inflation. So while other authorities are slashing millions from supported bus routes, and some counties are seeing 47 schools lose services, we kept it to a minimum with less than 0.33% of passenger journeys affected. Overall less than 2% of all routes in the city are subsidised, but we ranked them all to ensure those we did stop supporting would cause these least harm possible.
School routes are particularly difficult to arrange. They are costly, the 96 which was the source of some controversy this week would be costing us each year about £1,000 per child plus the parents were paying £240 a year for a pass. Most big operators aren’t interested in running school buses which are just one way in the morning, once, and a single-homeward trip. But we have been saying for months, I note including at the Budget Scrutiny meetings this January, that we are reviewing all school transport options. I said it again at the meeting this week. Not all school transport has to be by a large bus with a route number associated. Only those big spending routes need to go through the procurement we discussed at committee this week.
There are other options for transport, which we will keep discussing with parents, children, schools and providers. But of course people were understandably very concerned and if the service that runs by your home is affected, that it is only one of 0.33% is small comfort. It is also worth keeping in mind that in the past commercial operators have sought to continue some services even when the subsidy ended, because they found a way to make it commercially viable. So the end of a subsidy does not always mean the end of a route.
It was a difficult meeting and I take no pride or pleasure in moving these challenging items forward. The government is intent of forcing communities into fighting over scant resources, which is so damaging to our resilience and sense of collective wellbeing. Even the Tory chair of the Local Government Association recently called some of the cuts to councils “impossible”.
I know that Greens are working hard to manage our city as sensitively and responsibly as possible in the face of the austerity agenda we oppose. But what pains me most is how Tory and Labour councillors cheapened the debate with their empty posturing. They had every chance to do something more about this if they really cared, and their respective governments too. Of course we’re not going to always agree, but the public deserve informed debate not last minute posturing. Transport is a difficult issue for our city, and the council is only one part of the picture. I intend to keep working with everyone to find the best, sustainable and affordable solutions possible in these tough times.