Wednesday, 19 February 2014

On the setting of council budgets...


Bradford Council is about to set its budget for 2014-2016. I can hear your excitement at the prospect, the sounds of cynical snorts echo through the grand rooms of City Hall, even the odd snigger is heard. "Budget! Useless shower, what do they know about budget!"

All eighty-nine of us Councillors will troop into the Council Chamber at 16:00 tomorrow clutching our agenda and our copies of the budget. Few will have read the budget.

Your cynicism has turned to rage as you splutter - "what d'you mean, haven't read the budget?".

Absolutely most won't have read the budget because the Labour-controlled executive only published said budget yesterday - 48 hours before we get to vote on it. This was the last possible moment at which they could publish - leaving the rest of us with little or no time to read, absorb and propose amendments in time for the deadline for submission of those amendments (10:00 on the morning of the full council meeting). Bearing in mind that the Finance Director has to sign off any amendments.

I shan't bore you with the details of the Labour budget. Suffice it to say that they've done what we expect them to do - make cuts they don't need to make for maximum political impact and charged local residents as much as they possibly can for the pleasure of not receiving services they used to receive.

What bothers me is that, for all the council leader's protestations about the 'budget process', this is how we've always gone about the task of setting a budget in excess of £1 billion. A flurry of activity as we argue the toss over a few million quid. As my grandfather once said about the budget for Penge Urban Distrct Council (of which he was Chairman): "the amount of time spent on an item is in inverse proportion to that item's cost".

So Bradford Council's gross budget is around £1.2 billion. And we are scrabbling around down the back of the sofa looking for about £1.5m so we don't have to withdraw youth services from any community where the youth aren't actually running riot. And £65,000 to keep the public loos open in Haworth (a place that gets several million visitors every year).

At the end of the meeting we will have fulfilled our responsibility - setting a Council Tax for 2014/15 (and, yes, Labour propose an increase) and agreeing the associated budget. The problem is that none of the Councillors and few, if any, Council Officers will have read the whole of this budget. I know that, having done my best to wade through the budget, I will have missed something. And, at some point in the year something will come up and the response will be: "oh, it was in the budget" accompanied by a finger pointed at the offending line.

I could say that this is no way to run anything but, given the scale of Bradford Council, I can't see any way in which setting the budget can be anything other than 'top line'. And this means that, rather than the 'budget management' approach most councils adopt, we should use a priority-setting approach. At the planning stage, regardless of statutory duties and the exercise of statutory powers, we should ask what it is we think the council must do, what we think is nice to have and what is essentially a waste of time or money (or both).

There will be some things the council sees as a waste that have to be done because some numpty down in London says so ('equalities impact assessments' spring to mind here) but, by deprioritising them, we reduce the cost to the minimum needed to meet the duty. In contrast, there will be things we consider absolutely essential but which aren't a duty (providing public lavatories, for example).

The hard part of this approach to budget setting is that your decisions - I'd close down the essentially useless smoking cessation services, for example - will result in criticism from those associated with the service. A climate change department (Bradford has one of these) would be down near the bottom of my list of essential council services but the greens and 'save the planet' obsessives may take a different view - very loudly.

Most of the time the result of this process is that no-one is satisfied but equally there isn't enough dissatisfaction to result in big protests or (much more concerning for councillors) people voting you out of office. The result is that essential services are run on the same rickety basis as 'nice to have' services and bureaucracy we can do without. A sort of shared pain.


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