Unless you live in a cave or perhaps a monastery, with no communications outlets, you wont be surprised to learn that the country is in a spot of financial difficulty and that the Coalition Government has started to, and intends soon to take some serious steps to reduce the deficit in public finances. The big decisions will be taken with the Comprehensive Spending review in October.
Not being the sort to sit around and just wait for bad news, I have asked officers and members of the administration on Harlow Council to start thinking and planning ahead. Thinking how the Government’s actions might affect Council funding and planning on how we plug the impending financial gap.
Of course this sort of financial planning is not unknown in Harlow, and particularly my administration, which had to move an emergency budget within 100 days of taking office to try and put Harlow on a sound financial footing. We were successful and last year delivered residents a Council Tax freeze.
The coming financial year was always going to present some problems to us, as acknowledged in our Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) where we were going to have to continue to make some savings to reach our goal of fully balancing Harlow Council’s Budget. However national events move along all the time, and now we are facing the serious possibility of cuts in Government Grants.
Although we don’t know the scale and detail of the reductions or even when in the next four years they may happen, YET; I have made sure that the Council is already looking at how it can deliver its priorities next year and in future years. Most important is that everyone, members, officers and the public understand that tough times are ahead and tough choices will be needed.
And tough choices must be made, because the Council must live within its means and yet continues to provide services and meet the Council’s priorities, whilst no placing an unnecessary tax burden on the public.
There has been considerable media speculation of reductions of between 25% and 40% to public sector funding over the next four years.
I have to say, that achieving those sorts of savings in Harlow will be a struggle. Just over half of the Council’s General Fund expenditure is met from Government grants, so it’s obvious that losing from between a quarter and a half of that cash will mean significant impact on the services the Council can provide. Like I say, some tough decisions will have to be made but I am prepared to continue to make amd lead careful, levelheaded decisions, that seek to protect the services everyone in Harlow values most, where we can.
Year-on-year we have delivered savings for our residents through improving efficiency and this year we’ve frozen our share of Council Tax to reduce the financial burden on the hard pressed tax payers of Harlow. At this stage I must be realistic and say that we may not be able to freeze Council Tax again next year in order to maintain important services. Given the Millions of pounds of efficiency savings Harlow has found in recent years, the amount of efficiency savings we can deliver in future years is now limited. That does not mean that we wont try, and that we wont be thinking outside of the box to make savings for residents – we will.
The results of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) will be announced on Wednesday 20 October 2010. The CSR will give us an idea of the financial challenge that the Council will face and this will be followed up with much more detailed information for individual Councils which is expected in November 2010. Needless to say, I will keep you informed!