'Calderdale Council is bust' row erupts before crunch budget meeting

Calderdale Council's budget meeting is taking place tonight
Calderdale Council's budget meeting is taking place tonight

Calderdale Council is not going bust, councillors were told when they debated proposed savings in the run-up to the authority’s Budget Council meeting on Monday.

Councillors, including the chairs of the council’s scrutiny panels, were invited to discuss and question the ruling Labour group’s proposals at a meeting of the Strategy and Performance Scrutiny Board earlier in the month.

Budget Council will meet at Halifax Town Hall today (Monday, February 25, 6pm) to decide the council’s spending for 2019-20 and beyond.

At one point in the debate Coun George Robinson’s (Con, Hipperholme and Lightcliffe) suggestion that the council’s reserves were lower than you would expect and “it seems to me that the council is bust” produced a response from Cabinet member for Resources, Performance and Business Change, Coun Jane Scullion (Lab, Luddenden Foot), that Calderdale’s external auditors said, to the contrary, that the council was well managed.

And the council’s Chief Executive, Robin Tuddenham, said a dozen local authorities were at extreme risk but Calderdale was not one of them. “We are not one of those local authorities, it is very important to say that.”

Nevertheless it could no longer fund budget shortfalls by dipping into its reserves which left councillors with two options – cutting non-statutory services or redesign what it was doing, said Mr Tuddenham.

But it was not just reacting to pressures, for example every single service provided for children were outstanding.

Councillors were given their chance to voice their thoughts on the ruling Labour group’s budget proposals generally and specific items.

Leader of the Council, Coun Tim Swift (Lab, Town) started the ball rolling by saying between 2010 and 2016 council spending fell by about 80 per cent with more savings since, and looking ahead the council would only know more about local government financing in the spring.

In that context the council had two responses – for next year additional savings required were quite small and the council were in quite a good position and had been given some additional funding by Government to help address budget pressures caused by statutory adults and children’s social services.

The council had to address around £1 million of savings in the 2019-20 budget and also ensure £3.5 million of savings approved in previous budgets had to be achieved, so there were some challenges ahead.

Looking ahead to the second and third years of the cycle, the situation was still shrouded in a lot of uncertainty about what the council’s funding figure would be, said Coun Swift, so a range of options had been suggested.

Coun Swift said these could be developed: “As we get more clarity about what council funding might look like and what source it will come from.”

Once this is known, a consultation process with the public about what sort of services they wanted the council to offer is scheduled to take place.

Coun Scullion explained that from 2020 Government nationally had said it wished to end revenue support grant to local authorities with all the council’s income then coming from other sources, particularly business rates.

“That’s particularly difficult at a time when councils are struggling,” she said.

“Business rates are becoming an increasingly important part of our income in the future.”

Revenue from Council Tax and fees and charges were other sources of cash for the council.

“We will struggle for survival if we just look at a graph of doom, of demand rising as budgets are going down,” said Coun Scullion.

Board chair Coun Paul Bellenger (Lib, Dem, Greetland and Stainland) said there were other sources of funding including some windfalls but there was no guarantee the council was going to get them, for example being behind in new homes building meant being behind on the related bonus.

Coun Steven Leigh (Con, Ryburn) asked if there were savings from last year’s budget which had not been achieved which were being disguised – not necessarily deliberately but “off the radar.”

Coun Swift said it had been highlighted that £3.5 million savings from previous years’ budgets were achieved in the proposals.

Leader of the Conservative Group, Coun Scott Benton (Con, Brighouse) criticised the proposed budget for lacking in detail.

It was disappointing the public could not be reassured about front line services being delivered over the next few years and it did not allow voluntary groups who were helped by the council to plan.

Coun Scullion said many voluntary groups understood the context and wondered what role they could play to help if the council was forced to reduce its revenue.

Coun Swift said that the worst case scenario was that the council would have to fundamentally look at what it provided.

Central government financial support had a key role to play in this, said Coun Colin Hutchinson (Lab, Skircoat). “I don’t think all the criticism should be levelled at local authorities,” he said.

But Coun Benton said there was a third way to Government raising taxes or cutting other areas of spending nationally.

“We have tax raising powers ourselves and if you think its not sufficient have a Council Tax increase and a referendum to justify that decision,” he said.

“If the public think local government is a worthy cause, why don’t you ask them to put their money where their mouth is and go for a referendum?”

Coun Scullion said this was straying into the territory of discussions which would take place at Budget Council.

And Coun Jenny Lynn (Lab, Park) said: “I think the public of Calderdale want to keep their parks and libraries but many people are struggling to pay already.”

Coun Bellenger summed up what be believed to be the council’s position: “I have every confidence in our officers – but we are in challenging times.”