For several years Cheshire East Council has set unrealistic budgets, leading to large overspends during each year. There has then been a panic demand for managers to take remedial action, in turn resulting in emergency cost-cutting to try and finish the year on budget. These unplanned cuts usually cost the Council dearly in the long run and do not represent value for money.
At the Audit & Governance Committee meeting on Thursday, Labour councillors asked for more information on next year’s budget. It is acknowledged that government austerity cuts are causing problems for councils, but Labour wants the difficult decisions to be taken at budget setting time, rather than rushing cuts during the year. The recent fiasco over garden waste collections illustrates what’s going wrong (and many of the mistakes repeat the mistakes made at Lyme Green). In October the Council realised it was heading for a budget overspend, looked round for cuts to make and made an impulsive decision to cut garden waste collections in November. There was then a public outcry and the council backtracked, saying that garden waste could be put in the household waste bins. Notifying houses of the changed arrangements cost over £50,000. The extra cost of taking garden waste to landfill may mean that this cut to services will actually cost the Council and tax-payers money.
The Conservatives are stumbling into more secrecy and arrogance. They have admitted that they do not change plans as a result of consultations. The Budget Setting Process Cabinet papers from July say, “Recently the term consultation has been replaced with engagement to acknowledge that the funding reductions being experienced do not allow scope to significantly alter the proposals as a result of feedback.” In other words the Conservative leadership make up their minds and do not change their plans whatever evidence is put forward against their proposals.
Cllr Steve Hogben, Labour Councillor for Crewe South, said, “What particularly annoys me is that the council’s recycling service was well regarded – now it is a laughing stock. Rather than encouraging people to recycle more, the council is telling people to put garden waste in with household waste to be sent to landfill rather than being recycled. Far better to take cost-cutting decisions at budget setting time….., but the budget information provided does not give the level of detail to enable proper scrutiny. AS both Council member and Cheshire East resident I should be able to drill down into the budget data to see where the savings are being made and challenge proposals. I cannot tell from the budget information available to me when garden waste collections will cease next year, so how can I judge whether the dates proposed for next year are appropriate?”
Cllr Sam Corcoran, Labour Councillor for Sandbach Heath & East said, “Despite the alarming comments on budget consultations, I strongly encourage people to complete the latest Local Plan consultation. If the results of this consultation are ignored then the government inspector may well reject the Plan when it is submitted for approval. The Local Plan will determine where houses are to be built over the next 20 years and the consultation can be accessed via www.ncla.co.uk”
Labour Group Leader Cllr David Newton said, “Although efforts have been made to address problems in budget making, there is little evidence that steps are taken to be realistic about what is achievable, which leads to 'firefighting' decisions during the budget year. What is needed is realistic costings, realistic budgeting, and a willingness that once having taken decisions at budget setting time in February, the Council sticks to them. After all, one of the council's major principles, is 'to be policy led and stick to our decisions'. There is still too big a gap between aspiration and reality.”