SETTING a council budget, particularly these days, means some tough choices. The scale of the financial challenge we face is great and we don’t make light of it. But neither should we overplay the likely impact of our savings programme.
Only a few years ago I remember headlines warning that all sorts of popular council services were “under threat”. Those highlighted included the museums, the Guildhall and our leisure services. All of them are still here and still operating.
Then, as now, the City Council was faced with making some difficult financial decisions. And our approach then, as it is now, was to protect front line services.
The reality is that the country is having to deal with the aftermath of a long and deep recession. Even as the economy starts to recover, the amount of cash that we get from the government to help run our local services has been reduced and continues to fall as the Coalition gets to grips with the budget deficit it inherited. Local government has certainly borne its share of this burden.
So let’s look at the facts. Over the past five years we have made £7.5 million worth of savings. We have done this by improving efficiency, reducing staffing costs, sharing services with other councils, working with our private sector partners, getting better deals on the goods and services we buy and increasing our income through better uptake of services.
We have also ‘frozen’ our council tax for the last three years and intend to do so next year for a fourth time. And parking charges have been cut, rather than rising, over this time. Let’s remember that the average council tax payer in Gloucester pays just 50p per day for the services supplied by the City Council.
We have to look at our finances over the long term. We have a five year money plan and we have to work out our budget in the same way as any household or business. These figures show us that we have to make £5 million worth of savings over the coming five years. So for the financial year starting in April 2014 we are targeting £1.5m of savings and a further £2.3 million the year after.
Those are big figures. But let me be absolutely clear. We have no plans to close our museums or the Guildhall. But we will be reviewing the way they operate. We have to continually strive to reduce the cost to the council taxpayer if we are to reach our financial targets.
That also means that our partners – like Amey and Aspire – who provide our streetcare and leisure services respectively have to take part in this process as well.
The City Council provides the most generous levels of grants to the voluntary sector in the whole of Gloucestershire. This area cannot be immune to the pressures we face. We need to make sure that the cash given to voluntary organisations delivers the maximum impact.
If all of this sounds tough – it is. We have to live in the real world and deal with those harsh realities.
Having to reduce our budgets doesn’t mean that our ambition for the city has diminished or our achievements have lessened. Far from it.
We are working hard on the regeneration of the city. Over recent years Gloucester has attracted some £700 million worth of inward investment. While other cities have seen work grind to a halt we have witnessed a host of major development projects being built.
A series of respected, independent, reports that show how Gloucester is outperforming the national economic trend. We help businesses to get up and running and to expand with a range of practical support.
And for the next year we will continue that help by not raising our car parking charges to continue to encourage trade in the city.
Allocating diminishing resources between our twin aims of providing quality services and continuing our mission to improve the city is a delicate balancing act.
We will continue to search for better and more efficient ways of working. We will continue to look at sharing services with other councils and we will continue to develop relationships with partners in the public, private and voluntary sectors as we tackle the issues that face us.
Over the coming weeks we will be consulting with you on how we intend to spend what is, after all, your money. I hope that you will take part in this debate with us. When there is less cash to spend, it is more important than ever to make sure our priorities are right.
Gloucester City Council