So now we have the final recommendation from the Mayor about next year’s budget and what does it actually reveal?
Firstly let us look behind the headlines and get some facts. There have not been £32 million of cuts or savings but about £21 million. This, of course, on a budget of £1.3 billion. More than £10,000,000 is coming from extra government grants, the ability to raise more money through council tax or changes in financial planning assumptions.
One amount that is not being taken is the £1.5 million for keeping the council tax increase at zero. That would trigger a £1.5 million grant from the Government. Instead the Council will put council tax up by 1.8% which will bring in £1.9 million. There is no public explanation of why tax is being increased when the difference is so paltry.
The Liberal Democrat Group agreed last night to move an amendment at the budget council to take the money and spare band D property owners about £32 per year. This would have been the 4th year of level council tax and I have noted today that is precisely what Salford has done.
Clearly, some changes have been made at the last minute. The Golf Courses will not be closed if extra money can be found to pay them or a private contractor can be brought in to take them over. That is good but also an example of the way that things should be done. When I met members of both the Allerton and Kirkby courses they said that they had given the council loads of ideas about how to increase income and decrease costs. The council had resolutely ignored them. Involving users and residents usually improves practice and decreases costs – that is why we believe that the budget process in Liverpool has been seriously flawed. It has looked at cuts and not savings it has looked at current delivery instead of what could and should be done differently.
Let us take libraries which will be subject to savage cuts in the budget. The biggest threat to libraries is not government or council cuts but e-books which in the last 2 or 3 years have made major changes to the way we buy the spoken word. I am a passionate believer in libraries and getting people to read easily. BUT is what we call a library now the best way to do this. If it is the best way now will it be the best way in 2 or 3 years?
On issues like these and care of the elderly and dealing with problem families Liverpool needs to be having a major discussion about the future and the pressures of the present with users, with partners and with central government. It should be leading the debate and finding new methods for service delivery instead it devolved thinking to a small group of councillors. These decisions are not for 5 people or even 90 people but for all the people of Liverpool.
That is why if I had not been peremptorily thrown off the Budget Working Group I would not have joined it next year. It had no real purpose other than rubber stamping officer recommendation. I had envisaged it as a think tank looking at all the options; looking at new ways of doing things; an exciting place where there would be real discussion of the challenges. Instead we were given less than 24 hours’ notice of things that we HAD TO APPROVE!
Liberal Democrats in Liverpool are more than happy to join principled debates about options in the face of massive cuts in grant. Most of what the Labour Group has done we would have had to do. We will not be opportunist as the Labour Party is nationally saying they will keep everything going by recycling the same savings that they never intend to make. The offer is still open to the other parties on the Council and indeed all organisations in Liverpool to engage in a proper and structured debate about the future.