09:23 Thursday 7th January 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
PAUL STAINTON: In town halls right across the county councillors will be putting the finishing touches to their budgets for the next year, including having to make a decision on whether or not they should increase their council tax too. Many are predicting that record numbers of councils will increase their tax, because the Government has withdrawn the incentive to freeze council tax. So they could put it up by up to 4%, just under 4%. So add that to the other two bits (police and fire precepts) and your bill could go up by over 6%. I’m pleased to say that councils are ringing us left right and centre this morning to tell us exactly what they’re doing. Bill Hunt the Conservative councillor in East Cambridgeshire, morning Bill.
BILL HUNT: Good morning to you.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s going on in East Cambs Bill?
BILL HUNT: Well we listened to the people. We’re cutting bureaucracy and we’re retaining our free car parking. And we’re not putting council tax up this year.
PAUL STAINTON: That’s a definite.
BILL HUNT: It’s the East Cambs element of course as you say. Other people might, the County Council and the fire services. But East Cambs will not. We’re confirmed. We didn’t do it last year. We think that people who go to work are paying more than enough tax already. And we’re looking at slimming down our council and having a can-do attitude, and delivering what the people want.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. How are you making ends meet though?
BILL HUNT: Well cutting out bureaucracy.
PAUL STAINTON: People say that. That’s a trite phrase, isn’t it? What does that mean?
BILL HUNT: We’ve done away with one tier of management, and we’ve encouraged youngsters to come up, with their new enthusiasm. And we’ve changed the management structure.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes but no good if the County Council stick 4% on, eh?
BILL HUNT: Well, you know, we in East Cambs., we’re doing our bit for East Cambs.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. You’re doing what you can do Bill is what you’re saying, isn’t it?
BILL HUNT: Yes. And we’re the only city in East Anglia without car parking charges in the centre.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Apart from Fenland of course.
BILL HUNT: Pardon?
PAUL STAINTON: Fenland is free as well.
BILL HUNT: Yes I’m talking about a city. Ely is a city.
PAUL STAINTON: Oh. No. Apologies. I’m there. I’m there Bill. I’m there Bill.
BILL HUNT: The only city in East Anglia without charges.
PAUL STAINTON: You’ve planted that flag for East Cambs. this morning Bill I think. You really have.
BILL HUNT: Well we’re doing the job. We’re asking the people what they want. We’re doing the best we can to do what they want, and we think they’re paying enough council tax as it is.
PAUL STAINTON: Well Bill, thank you for that. That’s Bill Hunt. He’s county councillor. There’ll be no increase from them on your council tax bills in and around Ely in that part of Cambridgeshire. But of course the County Council could still add their bit. Let’s move over to Huntingdon. Jason Ablewhite is the Leader of Hunts District Council of course. Morning Jason.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s a bit of a complicated old system, isn’t it, but we’ve tried to simplify it. Effectively the thing that might make some councils want to raise their council tax is that the Government have withdrawn their bribe er.. their incentive to freeze your council tax.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Well I’d certainly not look at it as a bribe. I think it’s been a good incentive that the Government have brought in that our district council has been happy to take and freeze our council tax for a number of years. We’ve got a sustainable financial strategy that we’re not just saying we’re going to freeze council tax this year, but we are going to freeze council tax across the next four.
PAUL STAINTON: By cutting services?
JASON ABLEWHITE: No. No service cuts. What we’re doing is using a collaboration view. We’re taking a collaboration view in terms of working more closely with our colleagues in South Cambs and Cambridge City. We are taking an innovative view in the way that we are delivering our services. Is there a different way we can do it? Is there a more cost-effective way, so we’re always putting that challenge in. And of course there’s the commercialisation. You know, we’re not selling the family silver in Huntingdonshire. We’re investing in new commercial property, where we get increased revenue streams from that. So I think we’ve got a good sustainable plan which actually gets us to the end of this parliament without the need to put up council tax.
Could Sir Graham Bright and his office learn lessons? You might be in that office next year. You never know.
PAUL STAINTON: Well if you can do that, why can’t other councils do that? maybe you should have a chat with Peterborough.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Well I think Peterborough has got a slightly different issue in terms of its adult social care. Of course the district councils don’t have that issue. And I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that, because clearly when it comes to adult social care, my own view is that the whole system needs a complete overview. It needs a complete revamp, a rethink of how that service is delivered.
PAUL STAINTON: But councils can now put up their council tax by 2% if they spend it on that, can’t they?
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yes. If they spend it on that. And I think what’s not being reported yet is the Government is actually, although it’s the 1% that it was giving back to councils for freezing council tax, it’s now looking to do a four year deal, which of course gives local councils a lot more certainty about their budgeting process going forward.
PAUL STAINTON: You can budget easier, can’t you?
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yes. It is. It’s like anything. There are income streams like a business that you can’t control. They vary. There are variances every year. But to have some level of certainty over what income you’re going to get in over that period allows you to budget effectively and make sure that your key services that you provide to your residents continue in the way that they expect you to continue with them.
PAUL STAINTON: So we’re getting a freeze at East Cambs then. They’re not going to stick anything on the council tax. Hunts are not going to stick anything on the council tax.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yup.
PAUL STAINTON: Yet the police, they’re going to increase by 1%, because they need the cash. Could they learn lessons? Could Sir Graham Bright and his office learn lessons? You might be in that office next year. You never know.
JASON ABLEWHITE: (LAUGHS)
PAUL STAINTON: Why do they need to? Why do they need to put up 1%? Are they not being as fiscally thorough as Hunts District Council?
JASON ABLEWHITE: There are some real challenges around policing as we know it, and of course the terrorist threat is actually adding a significant amount of resource implication to the local policing, as it does across the whole of Cambridgeshire as well. So I don’t think we can underestimate the stuff that you don’t see that’s bubbling on under the surface that actually costs a lot of money to provide. However I do think from my own perspective that there is more that can be done on collaboration. I’m already in talks with the existing Police and Crime Commissioners across both Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire where there’s more collaboration, and I think there’s more that could be done with the whole public estate frankly across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
PAUL STAINTON: So do you think you’d be asking for a rise if you were Police and Crime Commissioner now?
JASON ABLEWHITE: I think I would be working really hard to make sure that we get a balanced budget without an increase.
PAUL STAINTON: Jason, thank you very much for that. Jason Ablewhite from Hunts District Council, the Leader there. There’ll be a freeze on their bit of the council tax there. You heard him say as well if he was Police and Crime Commissioner now, he’d be balancing the budget and perhaps not asking for an increase for the police.