Newcastle’s Opposition Liberal Democrat group will call on the City Council at its Budget meeting (Wednesday) to significantly step up progress on generating commercial income and generating savings from shared service delivery and reducing overheads.
By setting more ambitious targets, the Lib Dem Opposition believe that the council tax increase can be kept to 3% and many unpopular council cuts can be averted. The group also notes a significant rise in forecast council reserves, and is calling for a small fraction to be invested in a £5m road and pavement maintenance programme.
The Lib Dems will contend that Newcastle council has not done enough to justify the Budget’s title “Ambitious in the face of Austerity” given its failure to fully pursue alternatives to front line service cuts, including commercialisation, savings on the authority’s £12m utilities bill, below par performance on recycling and landfill diversion, and reduction of currently protected budgets for council administration including office costs and the policy and communication team.
The Lib Dem proposals acknowledge the Government’s support for councils to implement a 2% council tax rise to fund costs associated with the rise in the National Minimum Wage in the social care sector, and put forward a plan for a 1% additional rise rather than Labour’s 2% rise.
The Lib Dem proposals would overturn Labour’s planned cuts to library opening hours, local ward committee budgets, the older persons handyperson scheme, youth services, Warm Zone funding, mental health support, the Byker Lodge dementia care home, older people’s lunch clubs, adult care social workers, childrens social workers, and £1m of cuts to street cleaning and local environmental services. The Lib Dem budget confirms funding for the city’s under threat Citizens Advice Bureau.
The Lib Dem proposals identify £5m of one-off investment in local roads and pavements, drawn from Labour’s planned £40m increase in the council’s reserves. They propose allocating underspend in the council’s public health Wellbeing Fund to a one-year grant of up to £158,000 to reopen Elswick Pool as a community pool start-up, having similarly assisted Fenham Pool when the Lib Dems ran the city council.
To fund this, Lib Dems have identified revised targets for the council to generate more efficiency savings, including £800,000 from the £12m energy bill, £200,000 from the senior management team’s current £1.5m bill, £364,000 from reduced landfill costs, and £5m from a £30m long term commercialisation strategy.
Announcing the proposals, Lib Dem Opposition leader Cllr Anita Lower said:
“Over recent years the Labour council leadership has steadily cut frontline services and closed community facilities. They have been quick to attack the Government for their cuts to local government funding, but they have been far less keen to engage fully with generating efficiencies in how the council operates.
“We think our proposals set out a better way for the city council and for Newcastle than the Labour council’s budget which claims to be fair but which directs the bulk of the cuts at social work for vulnerable people, care for older people, mental health, and support for employment and careers advice for young people”
Lib Dem finance spokesman Cllr David Faulkner said:
“Our budget proposals challenge the council to do more on areas where it could currently do much better in saving money. Labour are making a choice to make further damaging cuts to vulnerable people rather than changing the way it operates by greater commercialisation and shared service delivery. They are choosing to protect spending on overheads and sacrifice services for people who badly need them.
We have set out areas where we think the council can do more to demonstrate ambition, including on reducing energy costs, improving recycling performance, and implementing its own unpublished report on commercialisation which highlights long term potential to generate up to £30m. We also call for the administration to include council overheads like the senior management team and policy and communication to be subject to cuts on the same basis as front line services.”
“Labour’s pay more get less budget is neither fair nor ambitious. By setting out our alternative approach, we are speaking up for residents, taxpayers, businesses and groups in this city who want to see the council doing more to be efficient and effective in a time of admitted financial challenge. We are showing that it doesn’t have to be like this - there is another way and a better way for the council to be run which would avoid the need for many of Labour’s cuts.”
Note to editors: We are aware that the council’s director of resources has questioned the viability of some of our targets. We have asked to be provided with a robust financial assessment of the savings he estimates can be generated from our proposed priorities within the 2016-17 budget period and note that the basis of many of the administration's proposals in the council budget report are similarly not fully assessed or verified at this stage. We believe that a stronger political lead is needed on securing commercialisation and overheads savings which is currently lacking at the council.