Financial Discipline at Cheshire East Council
Whatever political party you’re from it’s got to be good news that the budgets set by Councillors are followed. Therefore the Labour Group on Cheshire East Council welcomes the 2013/14 financial outcome. The surplus of £900k is less than 1% of the Council’s budget, so the good news story here is that the Council has, at last, appreciated the importance of financial discipline and is following its own budgets. Credit is due to the Council’s finance team for this improvement in performance.
Only a few years ago budget deficits of £10M-£20M were routinely forecast at Cheshire East Council. So the improvement in financial discipline that has been achieved is welcome.
Debates over Council spending should take place as part of the budget setting process. Once the budget has been set then the Council should stick to the budget. When the 2013-14 budget was being set, Labour suggested that a £350,000 cut to funding for voluntary and faith sector groups should be reversed. Labour also suggested that the 37E bus route should be maintained in the evenings at a cost of £50,000, that the Council should pay a living wage to all its staff at a cost of £400,000 and that the Council should trial new schemes that encourage people to exercise more, targeted at times when leisure centres are underused and at parks. The Conservatives rejected all these suggestions when the budget was being set. Now they appear to be admitting that they were wrong and trying to bypass normal Council finance procedures.
The Labour Group welcomes the Conservative change of heart over supporting voluntary and faith sector groups and looks forward to seeing this reflected in the 2015/16 budget. However, concerns have been raised that any attempt to bypass normal Council rules and allow any budget surplus to be given to Cabinet Members’ pet projects could lead to budgetary chaos and financial indiscipline.
It is a shame that an attempt by the Conservatives to grab headlines by giving away taxpayers money has overshadowed the good work done by Council finance staff and managers in sticking to the 2013/14 budget.
Sam Corcoran, Labour Councillor for Sandbach Heath & East, said, “When I joined Cheshire East Council in 2011 it seemed that budgets were largely being ignored by cost centre managers. I repeatedly stressed the importance of adhering to budgets to finance staff and through scrutiny committees, so I am very pleased to see the Council financial results coming in close to budget. The aim should be to follow the budget, NOT to achieve large underspends. I support the idea of giving more to voluntary groups and indeed when the 2013/14 budget was set I suggested £350,000 more for voluntary groups (see attached speech), but that decision should be taken as part of the budget discussions. I am very concerned that the Conservative plans to give away any surplus at the whim of the Cabinet puts at risk all the good work that has been done on instilling financial discipline into the workings of the Council. We should have our political debates at budget setting time, then once the budget has been set the Council should adhere to it. ”
Labour Group Leader, Councillor David Newton, said, “There are many competing demands on council resources. Although the financial outcome for 2013/14 is to be welcomed, there are still needs to be met in the community. We need to tackle historical underfunding on infrastructure and the quality of our roads, pavements and cycleways; we need to respond to the growing demand for care services, because of increases in the elderly population, to take just two examples. The idea that Portfolio holders should take scarce resources for their pet projects is not acceptable. On the contrary, it would be far better to create ward members' funds for spending in local areas where there are real needs to be met and councillors know where they are. This would be localism at its best, and if Cheshire East is committed to more localism, it would seriously consider such a proposal as part of the next budget.”