I have the pleasure to present the budget for West Lindsey District Council for the forthcoming year. The national economic outlook is, as we all know, difficult at the present time. Local Government will come under increasing pressure to make very substantial savings in the months and years ahead.
Some authorities are already under severe financial pressure and have been forced to make cuts to their services. Fortunately, West Lindsey is not in that position. We have been prudent in our expectations regarding the government grant in the past and this has served us well. As we move forward into unchartered waters we have modelled a cut in the grant of between five and fifteen percent for the forthcoming years. Our strategy around efficiencies and cost savings started some 18 months ago and this strategy does not end here.
This administration has commissioned a root and branch review of all spending undertaken by the Council to identify and implement further savings. We have already identified, through the work done to date, £1.4 million worth of savings, which equates to approximately 10% of our annual net revenue budget.
West Lindsey’s financial position is the envy of many of our neighbours in the county and beyond. Through long term planning and careful financial management we have placed ourselves in a position where we are able to:
- maintain all our essential services;
- invest in our key priorities for the future; and
- help alleviate the misery of the current recession for our residents.
I attended one of those consultation evenings in Market Rasen. It was very clear that this year the public felt strongly that we should deliver the lowest level of Council Tax increase which we prudently could manage, to help lift the pressure on many struggling households. We have listened carefully to what the public have told us. We have therefore decided to set the level of Council Tax increase for the forthcoming year below half of one percent - at the rate of 0.48%.
This is likely to be the lowest level of Council Tax increase in the County of Lincolnshire, and among the lowest Council Tax increases in the country. The Council is able to do this because of the responsible way in which we have managed our resources. This low rise in no way threatens the future financial stability of the Council.
I now turn to looking at our key priorities and the investment which we are going to make in the areas which are most important to us. The other night at the Organisation & Resources Committee meeting a member made what I thought was an important point about the proliferation of strategies and targets which all local authorities have to contend with. I agree with him that there is an element of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ to many of these strategy documents.
We all, of course, want to live in a prosperous district; we all want to help people improve their opportunities of obtaining a job; we all want an efficient Council. The “what do we want” question is quite an easy one. But the “how” question is rather more difficult. It is one which, in my opinion we have often struggled to answer. I believe that part of the answer to the question “how” is that we look at the district, its people and its resources and we tailor our response accordingly.
West Lindsey is a predominantly rural district where agriculture is still the major industry. People enjoy living here in part because of the rural nature of the area and the benefits that brings. There is a great interest among our communities in what has been loosely described as the “green agenda”. In fact, the recent Place Survey shows that residents in West Lindsey place the environment far higher on their list of priorities than people even in other parts of Lincolnshire do. I believe that we should place the green agenda at the very heart of all that the Council does. I think we should be ambitious – we should aim to make West Lindsey the greenest district in the country within the next ten years. If we get it right then I think that we can start to answer more effectively many of the “how” questions which I have posed beforehand.
We can attract new industries to this area in the fields of renewable energy, recycling and waste and energy savings technology. Some have already arrived. This will help create the prosperous district which is our strategic aim.
Our farmers and rural businesses can be at the very heart of this new agenda. We can train young people to work in these industries and lift the relatively low incomes in this area. This will give young people an incentive to stay and make a life here rather than leaving for brighter lights elsewhere.
We can tackle the issues we have around rural transport and ensure that new housing is built to the highest environmental standards and has affordable elements. The Council must lead by example and start putting energy saving and carbon reduction at the heart of its policies rather than merely paying lip service to them. We can look at pioneering some schemes of our own.
Furthermore, I think that this is a vision we can all participate in regardless of political party. Many of you will have some excellent ideas about how it can be achieved. It can become not merely the vision of the Conservative administration but the vision of the Council and its success will be a success which all of us can share in.
I believe that we have already started down this road with some excellent schemes in place. Many of you will be aware of our partnership with the outstanding social enterprise at Hill Holt Wood, a partnership which I helped set up at the very beginning. We have already secured funding for the Future Jobs Scheme with Hill Holt Wood. This will help train up to 150 unemployed young people in a variety of skills which they will need to find work in the building industries in the future. We now aim to develop this partnership with an investment in excess of £500,000 in the Homes for All programme. This funding will be provided from Section 106 contributions received by the Council. The Homes for All programme aims to purchase long term unoccupied properties in the district – and there are over 1,000 of them –and then bring them up to the highest environmental standards using the team of young people through Hill Holt Wood. These properties will then be sold to housing associations. Initially targeted at Gainsborough South West Ward, the scheme will provide ongoing training for young people, bring empty housing back into use and make these properties environmentally sustainable. We await the results of the Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment for the South West Ward. We have already committed resources to tackle deprivation and when the report is finalised the Council will consider what is required to deliver improvements.
The Council is further underlining its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint by making an investment of £200,000 in order to reduce the Council’s carbon emissions by 25% by 2014. This scheme is an “invest-to-save” scheme which will self-fund itself with the energy savings which will be identified and implemented over the next four years. This underlines how this Council is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to the environment.
Flooding is one of the major environmental challenges which we have faced over the past three years. The Conservative administration believes that it is essential that this Council continues to provide financial support for effective schemes for flood alleviation. I am therefore announcing an investment of £165,000 in flood defence schemes in West Lindsey. By putting some of our own resources into these schemes we expect that we will be able to lever in funding from other partners to make these schemes more effective.
This Council cannot deliver any of its priorities without working effectively with our partners, both locally and nationally. In these difficult times the Citizens’ Advice Bureau is doing vital work helping people who are struggling, many of whom have lost their jobs and whose homes are under threat. Recently, we all heard an excellent presentation on the work the C.A.B. is doing locally. I am therefore proposing that we increase the grant by £4,330 to the Lincoln CAB and by £6,580 to the West Lindsey CAB to support their outstanding and important work. This will mean that we are contributing to the CABs of Lincoln and West Lindsey a total of £12,000 and £45,000 per annum respectively.
The Council needs to do more to ensure that every member of our community has ready access to Council services and facilities. I am therefore proposing that we devote £50,000 to improve customer access and make sure that services are provided in the way that is most suitable and appropriate to residents’ individual needs.
We all know that the teenage years are rather difficult ones. I certainly would not like to relive mine! In a rural area such as ours many teenagers find it difficult to occupy themselves and there are few organised activities for them.
Some become involved in antisocial behaviour, which is often a result of boredom and inactivity. I am therefore proposing that we devote up to £50,000 to the Distraction and Prevention Schemes which aim to develop activities for teenagers and reduce problem behaviours.
Finally, I believe that local Councillors are often the people who are most effective at understanding the needs of their individual wards and encouraging schemes which really help the quality of life for the people whom they represent.
I am therefore proposing that we restore the Local Councillor Initiative Fund for the next financial year. This means that each Councillor will receive an entitlement of £1,000 which can be invested in schemes within the ward which they represent.
By managing the resources of the Council effectively this Administration has been able to deliver the low Council Tax rise which our residents want. We have done this without cutting services. We have also been able to announce funding for a number of schemes which will make a real difference in the lives of the people whom we represent.
This Administration has also started to answer the question “how” which is posed by the series of strategies which talk about “what we want” in the Corporate Plan. I also believe that after the recent difficult months we have started to change the culture of this Council. There is already a better and more constructive relationship between the ruling group and the opposition – one which I believe will survive the strains that the electoral process will inevitably impose upon it.
Members and officers are working more effectively together. I think that all members must attend the series of workshops which the Improvement and Development Agency is organising. Their aim is to explore in detail what the proper relationship between Members and officers should be and how it can work best to the advantage of all.
The Council has already underlined its progressive and forward thinking credentials by appointing its first female Chief Executive who will take up her post in mid-April.
There is much to look forward to in the future and I am excited about the challenges ahead. I commend this Budget to the Council.