EC email to Nigel Shaw re 2019-20 budget

Email from Ellie Chowns to Nigel Shaw, Cabinet Member for Finance, 24 September 2018

Budget consultation feedback

Dear Nigel,

Thank you for the opportunity to feed into the consultation on the Council’s 2019/20 budget.

I appreciate that the budget process is a major undertaking and that lots of people are working very hard on it.  However there are a few areas where the process needs to be improved, and so I will focus here on my three main concerns.

1: Capital budget

I am disappointed and concerned that there was virtually no mention of the capital budget in the consultation. This seems to me very odd, considering that we have almost no ‘wiggle room’ in revenue budgets due to years of austerity policies that have slashed Council budgets to the bone but we have much more flexibility in the capital budget.  In relative terms, capital budget is very significant: revenue budget of £145m next year, vs capital budget of £92m this year (a proportion of which I assume is likely to be carried over) and £48m next year?

And yet virtually all of the 25-page powerpoint consultation doc is focused on the revenue budget.

The only information on capital given to the public is on p24, which has a very basic summary of the capital programme (as it stood in January 2018) with no detail or explanation.  As I understand it, the only way a reader could find out what this money is being spent on is by looking at p205 of the January 2018 Council meeting papers, but this information is not given to residents.  (Also: the headline figures do not appear to have been updated to incorporate revisions to the capital budget that were agreed at council in July 2018).

At the very least I would expect that a consultation on the 2019/20 budget should include information on planned capital expenditure for 2019/20 and beyond, along with some explanatory text.

I would like to request that future budget consultations:

·       Provide residents with much more detail on the capital budget, commensurate with the scale of the capital budget relative to revenue;

·       List key capital projects planned, explain their justification, and seek resident feedback on them;

·       Provide residents with a structured opportunity to feed in ideas on top priorities for capital investment.

Fundamentally, residents should be provided with a) enough information to understand what the council is planning to spend capital on and to reach a reasoned view on whether this is a good use of money, and b) an opportunity to feed into decision-making on capital expenditure.

Since we still have several months before Council considers the budget, perhaps this could now be done?

2: The ‘till receipt’

I appreciate the rationale for this initiative – to make council expenditure more transparent to local residents.  However I feel the presentation of the ‘schools and education’ section is misleading.  A casual reader would get the impression that this is by far the largest item on which council tax is spent, and this is not at all the case.  Although the receipt is structured so as to show the DSG in the ‘voucher’ section, I suspect that what is really meant here will not be clear to the majority of readers.

I therefore suggest:

·       Budget items such as schools and education, and public health, which are entirely (or almost entirely) covered by central government grant, should be shown separately from the ‘council tax’ part of the till receipt.

·       Consideration should be given to showing expenditures not just in £ terms but also % terms (and ideally visually – ref the pie charts sent out by HMRC annually to taxpayers.)

3: Consultation design

I and other councillors raised a number of points on this at the budget consultation briefing in July. In particular, there was concern about the simplistic and closed nature of the survey questions. I distinctly remember a verbal commitment being given at that meeting to include space for respondents to write comments, but this was not in fact done.

I would have been very happy to contribute to improving the design of the information documents and the survey, but there was no time allowed for this; Councillors were briefed the day before the consultation was due to be released.  Comments made by myself and others at the meeting that would have improved readability of the powerpoint (inclusion of page numbers, revised presentation of p6 graphic) were not acted on.

On the budget consultation website there were no links to enable residents to easily access information beyond that provided in the PPP.

I do hope that in future years councillors will be given more opportunity to comment on the structure of the consultation before it is opened.

Thank you once more for the opportunity to feed in, and I look forward to engaging with you throughout the process over the coming months.

All the best, Ellie

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