Daniel Francis is leader of Labour Group in Bexley
Earlier this month, Labour councillors set out proposals to increase expenditure for new social homes and outlined how austerity is hitting council services. Sadly, Tory councillors refused to support Labour’s budget amendment which asked Tory councillors to ask the Prime Minister and James Brokenshire MP to reverse the Government’s funding policy which forces councils to cut services while raising council tax by the maximum amount, and which would have supported spending all monies available for new homes.
Take for instance spending on services for older people and adults with disabilities. When the cabinet member for adult services was appointed in 2016, his budget was more than £61million.
In the intervening three years, his department has had inflationary pressures combined with the need to give pay rises to low paid care staff.
You may therefore expect his budget to now be in excess of £61million. However, in this year’s budget the Tories agreed a budget of £56million for this service showing, despite their promises, that budgets have been reduced for our most vulnerable residents. In fact, the adult services budget for 2019/20 is less than it was in 2011/12.
Labour councillors thoroughly interrogated the council’s budget over many months, asking the majority of questions and came to the conclusion that not only are the council’s finances at breaking point but as a result of the decisions the council are making, the families of some of our most vulnerable residents are being driven to breaking point.
So while the grant received from Government is cut each year and as service pressures from vulnerable residents increase, the only choice open to the council is to sharply increase the amount of council tax collected.
The increase for the council tax payer in Bexley’s share of the council tax has been 20.4 per cent since 2014 which includes this year’s 4.99 per cent increase.
Even then council tax equates to just under 62 per cent of what the council spends, which is why residents see charges for services have to also rise sharply.
As a result of the pressures on our budgets, the council is projected to overspend its budget in 2018/19 by £2.9million, spend 20 per cent of its reserves to balance budgets in the space of one year and find savings of more than £18million (over 10 per cent of our budget) to balance the books next year.
We are also in the unprecedented territory of setting a deficit education budget of £3.2million because the Government has refused to fully fund the cost of supporting children with disabilities.
Labour councillors identified that the council has allowed almost £1.5million given to us by developers for new social homes to sit in the bank while more than 1,400 families and 2,000 children are being placed in temporary accommodation by the council.
While not a single social home was built in Bexley in 2017/18, the amount Bexley spends on temporary accommodation has risen from £1.072million in 2014/15 to £7.507 million in 2019/20, the equivalent of a 6.1 per cent council tax increase.
So while the Prime Minister may tell you that austerity is over, the reality is that the Government’s policy of 60 per cent cuts to our budgets over the last nine years is leaving finances but more importantly people at breaking point.