Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Last month the council reported they needed to cut £16m from the capital budget to mitigate the projected overspending of £14m due to adult and child social care demands, as well as inflation.
At this week's Cabinet meeting they have managed to find £2m in cuts to reduce the deficit to £12m. At the same time, they have found a further £4m in cuts to the capital budget, which takes the reduction to the budget to £20m.
The councillor responsible saw this as "making progress, but there is a long way to go."
It has now become noticeable in council meetings that when something goes wrong, councillors will bring in comparisons with neighbouring authorities.
In this meeting the lines used were “a stress that all other councils have to deal with” and “all other authorities have been caught out”.
I have said it before, but worth repeating, it is like receiving 33% on a maths test and being top in the class.
No one cares about what the rest of the class got! A caring parent may sympathise with the child and look to support them. As residents, we are not here to put an arm around the shoulder and say everything is ok.
However it is dressed up, it looks as though the management of our taxes has gone severely wrong and it is right to ask questions about competency levels.
More importantly, residents will be worried about what all of these cuts mean in real life. Details of this were not presented so it is difficult to comment at this stage.
The question is if residents could live without the cuts, why was the money earmarked in the budget in the first place? If not, what is the council putting in place to ensure residents will be ok? This was not discussed.
What was, is a solution some may not deem a solution.
Closure of 5 floors of the Civic Centre
To save money, it was announced that the council are closing the top five floors of the civic centre or “mothballing” it.
One of the biggest expenses would be the workforce. However, let’s presume that the council are not sacking hundreds of people, because the only thing mentioned about the staff was that people were working from home, so what expenses are left?
Electricity, heat/air-con and cleaning.
If people are working from home, then are the heating, lighting and electricity bills incurred by the worker to be paid for by the council? If not, is the council saving by moving these costs onto the employee?
If that is so, that is an interesting policy in the midst of their self-declared 'cost of living emergency'.
How much does it cost to run five floors?
£100K to £200K per year? Extortionate if it were. Even so, this saving hardly makes a dent in the £14m!
Other expenses normally include rent and rates. Does the council itself enjoy discounted rents and rates per floor? Do they even pay rent and rates? If not, as is likely, there is no saving here.
Overall, aligning the council's wayward accounting to closing floors in the Civic Centre comes across as disingenuous - even if that was not intentional.
To compound matters further is the idea of moving the entire council from the Civic Centre to Victoria Shopping Centre to save money.
£250K Feasibility Study for Trek to Victoria
The councillor responsible opened this agenda item with: “as a context, the council is facing significant cost pressures, but does wish to remain at the heart of our growing city”.
This very clearly aligns the budget issue with the idea that moving to Victoria will alleviate some of these financial burdens.
He announced that a feasibility study will now be undertaken, and if you concentrate, you can hear the councillor murmur something that suggests a cost of £250K.
Because I cannot imagine taxpayers footing a consultancy bill of this magnitude just to move from one building to another, I will gladly retract my bold statement. However, if it is £250K, then the council should once again dust off their recently announced 'cost of living emergency' policy just to check it is still a thing.
The people behind the council would never attempt to pull the wool over our eyes, but they have done a great job at creating the perception they are doing just that.
They spent £12m on Victoria Shopping Centre - £2m of which was to fix the roof!
The question is were they always expecting to move there when they acquired it or do they now want to move there because the place happens to be half empty and they cannot fill it?
If they had always planned to move there and sell the Civic Centre to property developers for the good of the city coffers, transparency was at best, blurred. Had they said this, would any of us worried about it? Maybe. Would we have done anything? Probably not.
If it is the case that they bought it to create a great environment for new entrepreneurs to start their businesses but could not find enough businesses and changed strategy, then that is perfectly fair. New entrepreneurs are not missing out because they were not there in the first place, and the large amounts of space for council offices will therefore have little effect.
It is these kinds of decisions that could do with a stronger effort at open communication with residents. Otherwise, all manner of conspiracy theories can be launched!
What we do know is that we could have done with the £12m now.
We also know that the £10m earmarked for Seaway would also be ill-advised in these circumstances.
Arguments about the difference between capital budgets and revenue budgets are moot - money is money.
Yes, facilitate an environment that grows businesses and therefore revenue for the council, but rush 'too far, too fast' (Truss, 2022), and we all know how that can end.
A city without a city hall. Who would have thought?
It is an odd plan and not one I might have voted for.