Tonight was the Full Council at Surrey Heath and the annual meeting to set the Council Tax over the next year. This tends to be one of the “political” meetings during the year purely as it means trying to decide on financial priorities over the next year.
Council budgets are difficult to understand (see previous post) but there are some interesting details there or can get probed out with questions.
The important background is that the last Council meeting, it was decided by 20 votes to 6 to force around 1800 of our poorest households to have a sudden increase averaging £380 in their annual tax. This Council cost of an alternative (£44k) was deemed not to be a priority for the majority present.
So what are the areas that Surrey Heath think are of far more importance in this period of austerity? Well, here is a list of 10 of them to start you off…
1) Promotions and advertising/marketing at Camberley Theatre
The budget for “Promotions” is £289 000 and “Advertising/Marketing” is a further £65k. Now the Theatre is great and we all enjoy a good show. However, in these difficult times, it is apparently now a priority for the Council to spend money promoting events such as:-
– “American Rumble Wrestling Spectacular” on 24th Feb, the pop group “Showaddywaddy” on 13th April and perhaps most bizarrely, last night’s performance by a spiritual medium who could perhaps be expected to “communicate” directly with interested people without the need for any advertising at all.
Should wrestling, rock n roll music and mediums really be more important than disabled and vulnerable people? I don’t think so.
2) Bowling Green contributions – £22000
Now I love sport and enjoy the odd game of bowls but if it is now getting to be a choice between a bowling green and desperate families, it’s pretty obvious what to do.
3) Health Care Scheme (£58100)
Clearly a long-term saving due to current staff contracts. However, this needs to be looked at for new staff recognising that many residents will not have this perk themselves.
4) IT Equipment/Supplies (£90k) and IT Licences (£387k)
The total cost of these headings is £477 000. This is a very large annual amount for a small council. Bearing in mind that we now have a number of highly IT literate councillors, I really hope their private sector experience perhaps with some in-kind support by one of our larger Surrey Heath employers could be used to reduce this down by properly scrutinising every licence, equipment and process. A 10% saving would be £47000!
5) Bed and Breakfast/Temporary Accommodation – net cost of £103 000
Sadly, this budget is likely to increase dramatically over the next year due to the Council Tax benefit decisions as well as other benefit changes such as the Bedroom Tax. Surrey Heath used to get a Government grant but no longer. Far better to support families to stay in their homes rather than landlords evicting them and then the Council have to deal with (and pay for) as homeless.
6) Corporate Events – £19000
Nice to have these civic receptions which are enjoyable but again in these tough times, they must surely come as a lower priority for spending at the moment.
7) Heathscene Distribution and Publishing
The net cost (after some advertiser income) is £22610. By all means, let’s advertise the good work of the Council and give corporate messages but the regularity and size should be reduced and far greater use of social networks.
8) Photographic Fees – £1000
Do we really need to pay £1000 for the Mayor to have their portrait taken and take photos at the above corporate events? Better to get some members of the local photography society and make a saving.
9) Refreshments for meetings – £1630
Jugs of tap water should be sufficient so councillors can be seen to set an example rather than spending £1630 in this way.
10) Trusts and Legacies
And the final area is an income stream which is currently untapped. Surrey Heath has areas of child poverty but also has some of the richest people in the whole country living in our area. Such people are generally time poor and cash rich but in a position to give money towards projects or activities that they value and can see a personal benefit or interest.
Therefore, rather than the public purse picking up the tab for cultural venues, play areas and other discretionary funding, why don’t we proactively target and court such people in the same way that charities and private schools do? For example, if someone wishes to reduce their inheritance tax liabilities or “make a difference” by sponsoring play equipment etc, we should encourage this as long as it is for local community services. For many years, I have (unsuccessfully) argued that Surrey Heath needs to have a dedicated grants/income officer whose SOLE job is to bid to charitable trusts and liaise with local philathropists for areas that the Government do not fund.
So in the end, I couldn’t really support this year’s budget as I am not convinced that the funding priorities are right for this year. The final decision for the record is that the Council decided to ignore Mr Pickles and plump for a 1.9% increase (costing £3.52 extra over the next year)