Budget Council Speech 25 February 2021 – Cllr Rowena Bass (Deputy Group Leader & Opposition Spokesperson for Finance)
Thank you, Madam Mayor for letting me speak and I would also like to thank officers for their help to me and the rest of the Conservative Group, in particular our s151 officer Sarah Ireland and her team for the briefings and other time they gave us on the details of this budget.
This is yet another lacklustre and disappointing budget from the LDs. The introduction reads almost identically same as last years budget despite significant events of Brexit and COVID. With a maximum council tax rate rise AGAIN and death by a thousand cuts to services. Where is the LibDem vision here? Do not forget that major projects such as the CRE were initiatives started by the 2014-8 Conservative Administration. The Small Sites programme has been an unmitigated disaster for my Coombe Hill residents living at Cumberland House who had scant consultation and were not listened to.
Unfortunately, no surprise that the LibDem Administration are again raising council tax by the maximum of 4.99%, comprising 1.99% general increase plus 3% adult social care precept.
This brings the Council Tax for a Band D property to £2,057 up from £1,771 when the LibDems took over in 2018, an increase of 16%. This is one of the highest rates in London and comes at a time when many Kingston residents are suffering a loss in income due to the ongoing pandemic.
Many residents working in the private sector and local business owners will not have seen any wage rises let alone income rises of this scale. Nor will pensioners on fixed incomes that only increase with inflation. Many residents will have lost their jobs and others worried about job security and so this is a cruel time to be increasing council tax again by such a high amount. I have received emails from residents complaining about the reduction in services, inability to contact the council and utter dismay at yet another full increase on top of one of the highest rates in London.
Conservatives are clearly the only party locally to aspire to minimise Council Tax rises for residents. LD Council tax rises over just three years is already double the rises for the entire last 4-years of the previous Conservative Administration.
This has of course been an unprecedented year living and working through this pandemic for all of us – the council and residents. The last time we met as a council at the GH was last budget council on 27 Feb last year! Clearly this has had a significant impact on council finances because of the new COVID responsibilities and inevitable lost income such as parking fees.
The Government quickly responded with unprecedented grants to local authorities to help cover the impact of COVID and rolled out support to residents in need - to employees furloughed, self-employed (though the 3 tranches of the self-employed income support grant, business grants, increase in universal credit as well as other support where needed.
I must say - A HUGE thanks of course to the amazing response of the many council officers who have had to adapt their ways of working, Kingston community partners and the voluntary sector in rising to the challenge and supporting those in need and shielding. As a positive many of us have got to know their community more, helped others and set up WhatsApp groups to keep a watch on elderly neighbours.
And not to forget the amazing vaccine roll out – 19 million jabs so far across the UK and the third highest rate of vaccine rollout in the whole world (only Israel and UAE have been faster. A local example for me - the New Malden GP network (serving the New Malden & Coombe Neighbourhood) on Wednesday reached 10,000 jabs! Thank you to all the other vaccine centres, and all health care professionals, and volunteers across the borough. And of course Kingston Hospital , our own excellent rated hospital, which has come under immense pressure and grateful to all the staff there who have risen to the challenge.
Back to numbers - London Councils have received over £1.3bn in direct support from the Government. Kingston has received just short of £30m COVID funding during this year: £11.5m in unrestricted grants, £10.7m in restricted grants and NHS funding and £7.6m to recover sales, fees & charges income loss, in addition to £7m of non COVID related grants. This has enabled Kingston to achieve a balanced budget for 2020/21.
The LibDem Administration will claim that this is not enough – but there is no magic money tree as paid for out of people’s taxes and so as the LibDem administration have a duty to achieve value for money. I just hope that with LibDem leadership coup in March that they did not lose focus – at the start of a pandemic a strange time for a leadership change – just take one example!
The January audit committee report outlined significant control issues with PPE purchases during the first half of last year. Lack of authorisation controls and miscommunications leading to in one instance 420,000 items being ordered rather that the 42,000 intended leading to surplus stock of £350k including 49 weeks supply of masks and 31 weeks supply of aprons! We asked questions about this at the time after hearing issues of finding storage space!
Several other control issues and a conclusion that ‘risk that not effectively managed and risk of overspending’.
Some key points to note regarding the 2021/22 council budget.
- Proposed income generation for waste charges eg DIY waste and proposed limit of dump visits per year per household to 20 max. Tip tax only changes after opposition from conservatives and residents’ petition.
- Reduction in libraries budget.
- Closure of public toilets in car parks. Where will residents be able to ‘go’ when we are all allowed out and about again??? For example if Blagden Road public toilets are to close then what other local public options are there?
- Only £1.6m (Just under £4m over 4 years) to move vulnerable adults out of their current residential homes into cheaper provision.
- Increase in parking permit costs.
- Kingfisher Centre will remain boarded up and out of action, leaving the borough with just one public swimming pool no date for replacement. We know that obesity is still a public health crisis and a key risk factor for COVID - residents need more not fewer leisure facilities.
Also funding for road and pavement repairs has not kept up with inflation and last year’s LD budget reduced the number of verge cuttings as a result many look unkempt and overgrown. Plus litter and fly tipping is visibly getting worse.
Regarding Kingston schools – they have received a significant boost to their funding from government. Schools across the Borough will share a 7% increase in total funding, with the most vulnerable students with high needs securing an additional 11% increase in funding.
However under the LibDem administration the deficit on the Dedicated Schools Grant has grown to an estimated £25m by 31/3/21, exceeding the general fund reserve of £19.6m, which in the words of s151 officer ‘places considerable strain on the Council’s financial sustainability’. The LG department have only given the council a temporary dispensation not to offset this which would lead to negative reserves.
So to sum up – you (LD Administration) promised to listen to residents. However residents are realising time and time again that you are not listening.
To use a well-known quote - You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time!
This is a depressing budget lacking in vision, charging the full 5% increase at this time of pandemic and hardship for residents, a 16% increase since 2018, plus cuts to services and the direct schools grant not yet under control at £25m deficit and increasing, plus basic council services including road & pavement repairs noticeably in decline.