Council Budget Numbers “Suspiciously Round”

peterborough council budget forecast08:07 Monday 13th February 2012
Peterborough Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY GALL: Peterborough City Council has made more changes to its budget, but it still has a budget deficit of £2.7 million. The amount Enterprise has to save has been reduced by £320,000. Enterprise, of course provides a number of services for the City Council, including street cleaning and looking after parks and trees. The amount being invested in trees is £250,000 less, and crossing patrols have been saved as well, which would have been an extra £43,000 for the Council. Nick Sandford is the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party in Peterborough, and joins us in the studio now. Good morning Nick.
NICK SANDFORD: Good morning Andy.
ANDY GALL: So what do you make of these figures then?
NICK SANDFORD: Well I think like everything to do with this budget, it’s very confusing. The amount of money on trees, the current budget’s £159,000. They were supposed to be putting £1 million additional funding in. I raised issues about (the fact that) we haven’t actually agreed the trees strategy. The Council hasn’t carried out an inspection of the trees. So how do they know that £1 million needs to be spent? On Friday I was sat at a meeting with the Trees Officer, who was trying to explain the £1 million, and I got a phone call from Radio Cambridgeshire saying the Cabinet had had a meeting. It wasn’t actually £1 million, it was only £750,000. So it just appears they’re plucking arbitrary statistics out of the sky.
ANDY GALL: It’s a good job BBC Cambridgeshire is on your Friends and Family.
NICK SANDFORD: It is. It’s very good you were there. That’s right.
ANDY GALL: With regard to this though, it is complicated. Because I looked through it last night, looked through the budget, and it can be seen as being a bit of a minefield. But how do you .. what clarity have you made from it? What do you understand from it? And what do you, in layman’s terms, how is it laid out? It still means that the Council’s going to be in deficit by £2.7 million.
NICK SANDFORD: Yes. They’re going to be in deficit by £2.7 million. What happens is they can’t actually have a deficit, because the Government won’t allow that. So they have to go to the reserves that the Council has and take £2.7 million out of the reserves. The crazy thing is .. and our local MPs and Government Ministers have commented on this .. is that the Council has been offered £1.5 million in additional grants by central government to freeze the council tax, and they’ve said to Government, no we actually don’t want that additional grant. We’d rather increase the council tax by 3%. We’ve been going through this budget in as much detail as we can. As I say, there’s a lot of arbitrary figures that aren’t explained. The £420,000 cut in the Enterprise budget, one of the senior Council officers admitted at an Area Committee Meeting that that was just a figure that he just forecast.
ANDY GALL: Well we have to be careful this morning, because of the right to reply from the Council. We did offer them the right, but nobody was put forward for us this morning. But there are claims that the Tories want to raise council tax this year, and you mentioned a 3% potential increase.
ANDY GALL: What would you do differently? What would the Liberal Democrats do?
NICK SANDFORD: Right. Well we are taking a very constructive approach to this. We’ve got a working group between the opposition parties on the Council, the Labour group, Independent Group and ourselves. We’ve had one meeting, and we’re basically going through the budget, and what we’re finding is we’re finding loads of very large amounts of money that are being put in. For instance, the Council’s got a contracter called Serco that they’ve just taken on to run Council’s IT services. They’re proposing to spend £3. 7 million on purchasing them a computer system. They’re proposing £1.1 million installing broadband.
ANDY GALL: Yes but it’s easy to cherry pick bits and pieces, and in some respects you could argue that you’re right to do that, but looking at is as a broad overview, because we haven’t really got the time to look at too specifically. But is there really glaringly obvious things that you are going to challenge the Council over? Or is it just these cherry picked things? What do you see as being the glaring issues? Because they’ve got to try and save another £2.7 million from somewhere.
NICK SANDFORD: The key headline as far as we’re concerned .. because these are not cherry picking tiny amounts. The amounts of £3 million, £1 million, £2 million .. these are massive amounts of money. The Council is proposing to invest in an incinerator, put £60 million into that, when a commercial company is building a high-tec treatment plant for them. So we think, by going through the budget, taking out and reducing some of these really large grandiose pieces of expenditure, that are only in there because they’re the pet projects of particular members of the Cabinet, that we can actually reduce the expenditure that the Council needs to have, and actually take the money from central government, and have a freeze in the council tax. Because lots of people in Peterborough are really hard pressed. They’re seeing their incomes frozen, incomes being cut. And at a time when the Council could freeze the council tax. and be given money by central government ..
ANDY GALL: Why wouldn’t they take that then? Because that seems, to someone like me, that seems odd that when it’s been offered to them. What’s the reason for that?
NICK SANDFORD: There is an implication for it. If they take the money, they get £1. 5 million. They forego £1.8 million in council tax in the current year. And it has an impact on the following years. But we really need .. when we’ve got an adult social care budget that’s spiralling out of cvontrol, £8.5 million overspent, we really need to tackle the current problems that we have.
ANDY GALL: Do you think that the Council has listened to the public’s concerns though before coming up with this budget? Because there were concerns about lollipop road crossings and stuff like that. Do you think they listen?
NICK SANDFORD: I think part of the problem .. the whole thing with the school crossing patrol .. some of us question whether they ever intended to make that cut. I think they managed to divert attention onto that, and then said, oh we’re listening to public consultation. We’re actually withdrawing it. At the end of the day, in a budget of over £100 million, that was £42,000. One of the problems with this budget is on the trees, on the Enterprise money, on the computer systems, on the incinerator, a whole range of things, people haven’t been properly consulted. Because they’ve been given these arbitrary figures, but not been told what the implications are.
ANDY GALL: OK. Nick Sandford, Leader of the Liberal Democrats Party in Peterborough. Thank you for joining us. And as I said we did ask a representative from the Council to come on board, but they were not available.