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WHILE it goes against the grain to criticise a fellow Conservative Council, the BBC Radio Five phone in presenter had backed me into a corner. Did I disagree with Surrey County Council for raising council tax by almost three per cent? My short and sweet answer – yes.
Let me hasten to add, I have no issue with Surrey – I understand their budget issues. They are not alone in refusing the Government grant to freeze the council tax.
Things are no easier in Harlow. We are staring down the barrel of an 11.8 per cent cut in our funding, and our budget proposals for 2012/13 – announced on Monday night – had to cover a £1.8 million funding shortfall.
But Harlow Council will freeze the council tax, this year, and that is the right course for two reasons.
First: our residents are suffering an unprecedented squeeze on their household budgets. It hurts every time they visit the petrol station forecourt. They simply will not accept the town hall jacking up another bill.
Two – and this is my substantial point – there are things councils can do to cut back office costs and find innovative ways to save money.
So what did we do in Harlow?
Well, we turned the Big Society into reality by finding new providers for our most popular services – like the museum, the town zoo and our nature reserve. Transferring these services to voluntary or charitable organisations has saved us three quarters of a million pounds. Further big savings have come from cutting one senior management post (£100,000); changing the way we manage planning and public enquiries (£300,000) and moving housing staff from another office in Harlow to our civic centre (£60,000).
Sharing services will also hopefully pay dividends. We are working with a nearby District Council to merge our revenue and benefits teams and save a projected £500,000.
I won’t go on, but you see the point. My authority is as strapped as any other but we are cutting the back office with a minimum impact on the front line.
Amidst this, we will actually spend money too – for example, £11,000 on tidying up projects in every ward, to be chosen by our residents. We are setting up a £30,000 fund to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, the arrival of the Olympic torch relay in Harlow and our town’s 65th birthday (Harlow was designated as a new town on March 25th, 1947). Our residents expect financial prudence, but I believe they also want to have some fun.
As a Conservative, I believe this approach – seeking new partners, cutting our costs and looking to offer services in a new relationship with the community – to be the right one.
Freezing council tax is now the standard, not the exception and austerity is sending us down a motorway without exits – to borrow the Tam Dalyell quote on devolution – where the financial speed limit will remain zero.
Acknowledge that, and the public will know you share their pain. Embrace it proactively, and you may even get their support.