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Councillor Harvey challenges the Council's budget plans

On 1 March Councillor Neil Harvey, Deputy Leader of the Opposition made a memorable speech at the Broxbourne Council Budget Debate which exposed the many flaws in the Council's budget plans and its concentration on vanity projects and metrics whilst ignoring fundamental responsibilities, like providing homes and re-generating town centres.  Here is his speech in full.

Mr Mayor,

This Council produced its Medium Term Financial Strategy in October 2014.  This told us that by 2020 the Council would need to have reduced expenditure by two and a half million pounds.  It would appear that government cuts have proved this figure to be correct.  However, we, on this side of the chamber, are still unclear as to how the Council will do this, given that we are now 18 months on from October 2014 and Cllr Ayling is still telling us we have £2.6m to find. 

We therefore ask what are the plans to get us out of this budget hole?  The Government has told us what we will be losing in grant over four years.  Cllr Ayling talked last November about needing to make difficult decisions to meet these cuts.  Why don’t we see any forward plans tonight to tell us what the difficult decisions are?    When is the administration going to be big bold and brave enough to let the Council know how this administration is going to deal with the black hole?

Nevertheless, I am pleased to see that some members of the ruling group, in the form of the WW1 panel, have come to their senses and ditched project Tommy.  This isn’t surprising given the lack of support from our residents who clearly believe that the Council should be concentrating on the real issues of the day. 

Similarly, the Council proudly advertised its year of heritage last year and has already started to put together plans for its year of culture this year, with logos and advertisements on all its posters, headed paper and agenda.  I would like to know, in these times of austerity how much has the council wasted on these grand ideas, not just in terms of money but also in terms of staff time?  This administration is damaging the reputation of this Council by pursuing these fanciful ideas.  Let’s get back to basics and start concentrating on the important issues.  Officer time has undoubtedly been wasted on these frivolous projects and this time could have been spent considering a more important issue that affects this Council and Councils up and down the country.  That  is the Housing situation.

Having a place to live for you and your family is one of the basic rights of a civilised society. The question for us as politicians, both local and national, civil servants, local government officers and everyone with an interest in Housing is this – how do we cope with the demand for housing?

All our hostels are full and there are no significant affordable housing schemes coming forward.  It is due to the lack of political direction from this Council’s tory administration that these matters are not being dealt with properly. 

The problem was highlighted by a report from the Resolution Foundation, chaired by the former Conservative Minister, David Willets which concluded that 9 out of 10 Britons on modest incomes will be frozen out of home ownership within a decade. The frightening consequence of this is that only the rich will be able to own their homes. That is a situation that cannot be allowed to develop and a fresh approach to Housing is needed.  

We can set targets for the number of houses to be built in our borough, which are always missed, but the big question remains. How is this council going to provide homes to everyone who needs them?

The local plan is a start but that has constantly stalled whilst members spend endless time on heritage, culture and statues.  Where in the capital programme is the help for those needing a home?

I am calling on the cabinet member for housing to call a conference of everyone interested in housing in the Borough to look at how we can help everyone, not just the rich and very rich own their homes. Difficult problems need a fresh approach and we on this side are willing to help plan the future Housing policy for the borough.

Although the Local Plan is still in its early stages, the Framework Document does make for interesting reading, but what concerns me at the moment, is the future viability of our Town Centres.

Town centres have always been at the heart of the local community and when Town Centres fall into disrepair, local communities will follow. How people shop has changed considerably over the last ten years with the growth and usage of the internet for shopping. We cannot stop that phenomenon but we should be doing all we can to protect the viability of Hoddesdon, Cheshunt and Waltham Cross. Some steps have been made which we support but more can, and should be done.

Continual investment appears to be being made in Hoddesdon and Rye Park but I ask: when are we going to deliver the plans for the Waltham Cross area?  It has taken forever for the Waltham Cross development to come to the fore and we are still not absolutely positive when the proposals will come to fruition with the Roundel.  I would like to call on the Leader to confirm that he and his group are still committed to delivering the Waltham Cross enhancements and that he promises he will ensure that officers are called upon to make this project become a reality for the residents of Waltham Cross over the next 12 months.  I welcome the additional money to be spent on Waltham Cross but please do something on the ground for once.

Regarding the proposed expenditure plans for next year, I do not propose to make any significant changes to the budgets already put forward by Cllr Ayling as the scope for doing so is severely limited.

However, there is more we should be doing especially in the area of housing which is a national disgrace.  I also firmly believe that this Council’s previous policy on council tax was wrong.  Looking at the level of Council Tax, the ruling group, in the past, made a great play about the level of Council Tax in Broxbourne being frozen for a number of years and about us being the lowest council tax in England.That headline may get a few lines in the Mercury for one week, but the consequences these decisions have had on our finances needs to be mentioned.  What has the freeze achieved apart from making things difficult now and in the years to come?

By not increasing the Council Tax, Broxbourne has lost over £300,000 in income that could have been used to provide the services that our residents want and deserve.

Proposing a £5.00 increase in the Council Tax is the right thing to do and will go some way to helping the Council meets its obligations and service provision. It was a pity that this was not done sooner as it may have helped offset the level of savings that have to be made now.

We are not immune from the cuts that will have to be made in the coming years but whatever choices are made, I feel that those who are vulnerable and those who are unemployed or without work should be protected and I call upon the Leader to confirm that his party supports this proposal.

It’s a mark of a civilised society as to how we protect those less well-off and who are struggling to make ends meet.

Briefly, I would like to turn to two areas where I feel that we should be investigating an increase to our revenue stream as it is evident that we will be relying on our own sources of income more and more as grants from Government cease.

Firstly, I was struck by other councils who are setting up trading companies and selling services such as Human Resources services to local businesses and gardening services to local residents. I believe this could provide a valuable revenue stream to this Council. We have highly trained and professional staff and this could be used to get such a venture up and running.

I am therefore asking Cllr Ayling to ensure that officers investigate, as a matter of urgency, this proposal and report back with a business case as soon as possible.

We need to explore all options given the severe financial constraints that the government has placed on Councils and this could go some way to helping us fund our services.

Secondly, this is nothing new and we have made a start but the use of solar panels on our buildings could provide us with a ‘double win’.

It will reduce the cost of electricity bills and we will be in a position to sell our spare capacity thus increasing our revenue, currently around the 40k mark.

If we were to install solar panels on our buildings which are suitable and on any new buildings we can use capital funds for the installation costs and these can be repaid to Capital over time.

We could also look at the way we heat our buildings. I gather that the bio – mass boiler at Laura Trott is cost efficient and will save over £50.000.

Both schemes appear so simple that I wonder why they haven’t been done before. I just hope that because I have suggested them that they don’t take another 5 or 10 years before they see the light of day.

Again, this is being creative in how we approach the new challenges that we face.

I wish to make specific points about areas where we could reduce our expenditure.

I would like to propose that a review is carried out into the need for deputy Cabinet Members. I was sceptical when the ideas was first proposed and still remain so. In large authorities such as County Councils or the London Boroughs, I can see the need, but for an Authority such as Broxbourne I can’t. When they were first created, we were told that they would not attract a Responsibility Allowance but that soon changed. Abolishing the positions, along with Responsibility Allowances for the Vice – Chairs of Planning and Scrutiny would save over £19,000. I admit that in terms of our overall budget, it’s not a great deal but it does send a powerful message to our residents that we are serious about reducing all non essential expenditure.

I made the point earlier that Cllr Ayling’ budget is short-sighted budget.  It says all same old things about how the administration has balanced the budget whilst maintaining high quality services.  Tell that to the hundreds of people who have had missed bin collections in the last few months. 

Mr Mayor, to summarise, I would like answers to my six questions which are :

1            When are we going to see a plan for dealing with the reductions in government support over the next four years and possibly beyond?

2            How much time and money has the Council wasted pursuing the year of heritage, the year of culture and project Tommy?  Whatever the answer, let’s stop this nonsense now.  I’m sure many in the ruling group agree, so let’s hope they wake up and smell the coffee and tell the Leader what they really think.

3            How is this council going to provide homes to everyone who needs them?

4            When will the plans for the Waltham Cross area actually start? 

5            What has the council achieved from freezing council tax since 2009/10?

6            Where in the budgets do we deal with these critical issues?        

It is our intention to make Broxbourne a better place for all the residents whatever their circumstances and wherever they live.

From the detached mansion in Goffs Oak to the flat in Holdbrook, they are all our residents, the people we serve, be it Officers or Members.

They all demand and expect the best services we can provide at an acceptable price and expect us to focus on the issues that matter to them which are their local services and the local community.  Doing this with the budgets cuts facing us will involve making the right choices but they are ones that we must make and we must not be distracted by non-essential issues.

I wish to move the amendment standing in my name namely that:

1            the questions I have asked be debated at the first Council meeting after the election

2            that the housing conference be arranged to help develop a coherent housing policy

3            the positions of deputy cabinet members be stopped

4            no further time or money be wasted on the year of culture

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