By Cllr Phil Davies Leader of Wirral Council
Wirral Council is currently in the process of setting a budget for next year, 2018-19, a process which involves assessing how much money the authority needs to spend to maintain services, from social care to emptying bins – and how much can be raised through council tax and fees such as car parking or leisure charges.
I want to highlight some key issues facing the council now, and in the coming few years, and explain the Labour Group’s approach to setting the budget in extremely difficult circumstances. I won’t rehearse the sadly familiar facts that the Tories have been trying to decimate local government through its harsh and unsuccessful austerity experiment, but if you read on you will see the stark facts facing our council – and the efforts of your Labour councillors to protect key services despite the unrelenting pressure from Theresa May & Co in Whitehall to undermine us.
Some members may have read about the spiralling cost of children’s services in Wirral. Let me make this clear – we are a Labour council and we will take the necessary steps to protect the most vulnerable in our community. Over the last seven years, as a direct result of the Tories’ austerity destroying people’s lives and hitting them when they are down, we have seen a massive increase in demand for children and their families to be helped. This means we have to find another £19-25 million to ensure vulnerable children are looked after and we will do this.
Having listened to Labour members from across the borough, I’ve identified a number of key questions that many are asking about how the budget is set, why certain decisions are made – or even have to be made, and what is it that makes this a Labour budget. Before that, for those who don’t have to spend their time navigating the intricacies of local government finances, I have also set out some basic information about what we, as councillors, are working with.
How much money does the council have – and where does it go?
Wirral Council has £266 million a year (known as a “net revenue budget”) which we spend on delivering services to local residents. This is broadly divided up as follows:
- £80.6 million is spent on services for children and families;
- £75.5 million on adult social care and public health;
- £60.7 million on the environment, including highways, housing, leisure and culture;
- £37.4 million on economic development and growing the economy;
- Around £12 million is set aside for ‘contingencies’, i.e. money to deal with unexpected issues and emergencies and those services which are overwhelmed by demand for extra help, e.g Children’s Services, which occur during the year.
Where does the council’s money come from?
Roughly 80% of the Council’s budget has historically come from central government grants.
Since 2010, successive Tory governments have cut the Council’s budget as part of their austerity policy.
This has amounted to cuts of almost £200 million.
We estimate that we will have to find further savings of £132 million by 2020. Other grants are also being removed, eg. the Education Support Grant, and we are also facing up to the Business Rates retention policy which could, if we don’t do anything about it and grow our own business base massively, cost us millions of pounds every year.
Councils in the UK are facing a funding shortfall of almost £6 billion by 2020.
Why do I keep hearing that the council has no money for key services?
The Tories have announced their intention to remove completely the main block of money which Councils have traditionally relied on to deliver public services. This is the Revenue Support Grant which will be withdrawn from 2020/21. From that date Councils are expected to be almost entirely self-sufficient. This means that the only income they will have to pay for services is the proceeds from Council Tax, Business Rates and fees and charges.
This is extremely bad news for Councils such as Wirral which has two-thirds of its houses in the lowest Council Tax bands (A+B) because it means that a 1% increase in Council Tax raises relatively small amounts of money (each 1% equates to £1.2 million) compared to many councils in the south-east of England who are able to raise significant sums of money because they have a much larger proportion of their housing in the higher Council Tax bands (D-H). The same principle applies to Business Rates.
Children’s Social Care: Wirral biggest immediate challenge is funding children’s social care. Mainly due to Tory austerity placing stress on families, we now have the highest ever number of children in care across England and Wales, with 90 children being brought into the care of local authorities every day.
Wirral’s current numbers are double the national average for 2016 (120 children per 10,000, against a 2016 average of 60 for England). Today, we have 838 children in care – up 150 from two years ago – and our projections suggest this number will rise to 900 by April 2018.
This is creating massive budget pressures – nationally, three quarters of councils are overspending their children’s social care budgets in 2016/17 (total overspend of £605 million). Wirral needs to fund growth in children’s social care of up to £25 million for the coming financial year to deal with rising demand.
For 2017/18, the Council is facing a budget gap of £61 million (this is the difference between the cost of our services and our projected income).
This is the biggest we have ever had. The Government is cutting our budget creating massive pressures on Council resources and forcing incredibly difficult decisions on councillors.
What is Labour’s approach to setting the budget?
The Labour administration on Wirral Council has given priority to protecting front-line services. The savings delivered to date have been focused on three main areas:
- improving efficiency, such as renegotiating contracts, improving the way money is managed and invested and getting the best possible value from every pound available;
- redesigning services – this entails looking at new delivery models which bring in new income streams, for example, we have established a local authority trading company (Wirral Evolutions) to provide day centres for people with learning disabilities; a community interest company (Edsentials) has been created in partnership with Cheshire West and Cheshire Council to deliver traded services to schools;
- generating income – we have accepted the Government’s offer of a four year settlement. This brings the requirement to agree an annual council tax rise (we can agree an increase of up to 2%. If we wish to go for a bigger increase we have to get the agreement of residents via a referendum. The cost of holding a referendum is £100,000 and the cost of re-billing is £60,000, so we would already lose a massive amount of the extra cash we might raise – and that’s only if people voted for a tax rise).
However, the Council Tax rises we have agreed, coupled with charging a fair price for paid for services, will bring significant new income to the council. Plans are also being progressed to increase new house building in the borough. With more than 13,000 approved planning applications on the books, a big increase in house-building will deliver millions in additional revenue. Finally, we are working in partnership with Wirral Chamber of Commerce to encourage new businesses to start up and with agencies such as the Local Enterprise Partnership to attract new investment to the Borough. As well as providing new jobs this brings in additional business rates which we can use to fund services.
A key part of our approach to setting the Council’s budget is consultation. The Council carries out annual consultation with residents, on top of the statutory consultations required of local government. We also have constituency committees working through the year to improve their neighbourhoods – if you’re not involved find out more here as these work more effectively as more people get involved. But our consultation does not end there. As the Labour leader of the Council I meet with trade union representatives every month to discuss a range of issues, including the Council budget. As a result of our shared ideals Wirral has led the way in ensuring Council employees are paid the Living Wage while also working hard to safeguard our high quality public services and encourage other local organisations and companies to pay the Living Wage to their staff. And as a Labour Council we have been prominent in campaigning alongside unions against Tory austerity and to secure the fairest possible deal for Wirral residents in the face of continued cuts attacking welfare, housing, police, fire and the NHS.
The Council’s long term vision for the Borough is set out in the Wirral Plan which was adopted in 2015. Between now and 2020 we are committed to delivering 20 Pledges based on three priorities: protecting vulnerable people; growing the economy; and improving the environment. Each Pledge has specific and measurable targets attached to it which will enable us to be held to account by local residents for our performance. A key driver for our budget is the need to deliver on our 20 Pledges.
Why doesn’t the Government help out more?
The Tory Government has for the last seven years used austerity to justify draining local councils of resources, undermining local government and then trying to blame local politicians for services which are cut because of Government policy. As we saw this year when it was in the news the Prime Minister Theresa May promised to help rebuild the town after the devastating explosion but as soon as the spotlight went away they refused to step in to help the residents and businesses and it was left to Wirral Council to pick up the pieces.
This just goes to show we cannot rely on the Tories to help us out, even in the most dire emergencies and as a result we have to find ways to make ends meet and continue to provide the services the people of Wirral want and expect.
Can’t the council borrow money to keep things ticking over until we get a Labour Government and just set a budget that spends what’s needed?
As the ruling group on Wirral Council and as a responsible Administration, we have a duty to set a sustainable and legal budget. The government has made it very clear that Councils who fail to set legal budgets will very quickly see commissioners sent in who will remove elected Councillors and impose a budget.
This means civil servants will be sent from London to balance the budget – and they will not be accountable to the wishes, needs and priorities of people in Wirral – their only objective will be to ensure the budget is set legally. Such an outcome would be disastrous for the people of Wirral – parks, libraries, leisure centres and any service deemed too expensive would be shut down to cut costs.
With regard to borrowing it is against the law for the council to borrow money to fund day to day expenditure such as social services, bin collections or paying staff wages. The council is only allowed to borrow money to fund building roads, buildings, and other long term infrastructure projects.
What has Labour been doing to make lives better for people in Wirral?
Being in control of the Council gives us an opportunity to put a ‘Labour’ stamp on the budget and the Council generally. It’s essential that we ensure that our principles of social justice and delivering good public services are put into practice.
Since 2015 when the Wirral Plan was adopted and under Labour’s leadership of the Council we have successfully managed the budget and avoided having to make wholesale closures and damaging cuts seen elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, we have delivered a number of important outcomes based on our 20 Pledges. These include:
- Wirral was one of the first councils to pay their staff the Living Wage.
- More than 2,000 jobs have been created.
- Over 1,000 new businesses have been created.
- Our tourism economy is now worth an estimated £385 million – up from £355m in 2014 and employs over 5,000 people.
- We have the highest ever level of employment for people with disabilities (44%).
- More than 1500 homes have been improved or brought back into use. 144 new affordable homes have been built in the past 12 months
- Wirral has invested £350,000 in establishing four selective licensing schemes to curb rogue landlords and help protect tenants in private rented homes. Four new areas will come on stream in 2018.
- 9 out of 10 schools are rated ‘good’ or better by Ofsted
- We have opened Wirral’s own Youth Zone, The Hive, which is a £6m public/private partnership providing state of the art sport and recreation facilities for young people across Wirral. The Hive has exceeded its first year membership target of 3,000 in less than a month and is now up to 6,500.
- We’ve had a major push on tackling social isolation via ‘door knock’ events which has seen 2000 people contacted directly with 300 being referred for further advice and support and a new bereavement support group being created.
- In terms of protecting our environment, we’ve adopted a zero tolerance approach to litter & dog fouling – 20,000 fixed penalty notices have been issued to people dropping litter or not clearing up after dogs.
- Wirral has more green flag awards for our parks than any other local authority in the North West. Wallasey is also now proudly flying the first Blue Flag in Wirral at Harrison Drive beach.
- Wirral has worked hard across the City Region to deliver a high quality programme of cultural events. These have included the River of Light, River Festival, Vintage Fair and Armed Forces Day.
- Wirral has the lowest crime rate per head of population in Merseyside and anti-social behaviour incidents being reported to the police have fallen by 16% compared to 2014/15.
- Wirral Council fought for local people in New Ferry in the aftermath of the gas explosion last March. We have invested £300,000 of our reserves in helping local residents and businesses and have taken the government to task over its refusal to provide any financial assistance. The Council is in the process of putting a long-term regeneration plan together for the town.
- Wirral Labour councillors have led the campaign to get the Walk-in centre at Eastham re-opened.
- From 2017/18 Wirral Council has agreed to exempt care leavers from paying Council Tax.
What about all that money (“reserves”) the council has “stashed” away?
Opposition voices regularly claim that the Council can easily balance its budget by taking money from our “reserves” as if this were just money in the bank, like savings, to be dipped into whenever needed. As is usual with these opposition claims this is a distortion of reality intended to deceive voters into thinking we are somehow not managing the Council’s resources effectively.
The actual position regarding the use of reserves is as follows:
The Council currently holds £94 million of these reserves (also known as “balances”) but what our political opponents are not saying is that these reserves are held almost entirely for specified purposes or projects. They include sums for use only by schools, Government grants linked to specific projects, and funds for essential elements such as insurance and VAT which we will be billed for.
In fact, any sums which are held in reserves but no longer required are returned to the General Fund Balances – i.e. used to pay for the essential services provided by the council. These Balances provide ‘one-off’ funding to support the Budget.
To imply that the council is holding £94 million of reserves which could be used to support day-to-day expenditure is a complete misrepresentation of the facts.
At the moment the money known as the General Fund Balances currently stand at £14 million – that is the money we “have in the bank”. This is to cover unforeseen events / emergencies (such as the cost incurred in dealing with the New Ferry explosion) and pressures including year-end overspends (Children’s Services is facing increasing demands). In fact, we are close to the absolute minimum as the law requires us to allow these levels to no less than £10m.
Further detail on the break-down of the reserves is available for anyone who wants it in the Council documents here.
We review each year whether any of this money can be taken out and used to help fund the Revenue Budget. We have to be mindful that this only provides short-term money. Reserves can only be used once, and trying to use “one-off” sources of money to fund a recurring budget shortfall is not a sensible way of managing public finances.
The money we hold but have not yet spent is invested with a range of approved investors (including other local authorities) – and all must meet minimum risk ratings.
A Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) survey of 150 local authorities identified that over 70% of councils were investing with other local authorities, totalling £2 billion invested. Wirral recently had two investments totalling £8 million (with Thurrock Council £5 million and Highlands Council £3 million). These investments generated interest, which we would not have otherwise earned, which is used to fund those crucial frontline services we all want and use. In these cases we earned around £16,000 for Wirral Council services from short term (six month) loans.
This sum does fluctuate from year-to-year depending on the money available for investment. Investment decisions are taken by qualified officers in accord with the Council approved Treasury Management Strategy. There is no Elected Member influence on individual investment actions as the investments with other local authorities have taken place when the Council was under Conservative, Labour, Coalition or No Overall Control.
So in summary the money held in Reserves/Balances cannot be used to provide continued funding for other services, but with prudent investment the interest earned can be used to support Council Services.
What is the Wirral Growth Company – and is the council selling off the “family silver”?
Wirral Growth Company is a joint venture 50:50 partnership between the Council and a private sector investor/developer. The Council will bring its assets to the partnership and the investor will bring their capital and expertise in regeneration.
The Council will retain the freehold on all of its assets.
An ambitious programme of regeneration totalling £1 billion has been identified including areas such as Woodside, Hamilton Square, and Birkenhead Town Centre.
The Growth Company will invest in regeneration projects in these areas. The benefits to the Council of this model is that, as well as bringing in much needed jobs and investment to the Borough, we will receive a regular income stream over a 10-15 year period which we can use to invest in front-line public services in order to replace government funding.
The Wirral Growth Company is an innovative approach to delivering regeneration. It is different from schemes being delivered in other parts of the country, like Haringey, where existing tenants are seeing their homes demolished to accommodate new developments. Instead, Wirral Growth Company is planning to build new homes on brown field sites in Birkenhead and other areas to meet the needs of residents today and tomorrow.
The Council does not have the capital to deliver the scale of regeneration ourselves and we can’t borrow the money as we will have to repay interest on any borrowing which merely adds to our revenue shortfall.
Why is the council spending money on the Golf Resort when it is so short of cash?
Hoylake Golf Resort is a £200 million investment led by Celtic Manor, Story Homes and Nicklaus Joint Venture Group which will provide a Jack Nicklaus designed Championship-standard golf course; Celtic Manor branded and managed resort including a 90 bed hotel and spa; 40 apartments linked to the hotel; a new clubhouse and restaurant; a new 18 hole municipal course based on a Nicklaus design; a Links golf academy and practice range and a maximum of 160 executive homes.
This is another example of the council investing now to ensure it earns money in the future when the cash from central government is completely withdrawn by the Tories, and the benefits to Wirral will include:
- £1 million per year in Council Tax and Business Rates which we can invest in front-line public services;
- a minimum of £2.5m per year loan interest return on investment; land receipt of £3.2m; a share of any operational profits;
- 175 jobs and 168 construction jobs;
- a high quality Celtic Manor branded resort and management;
- benefits to existing businesses from a significant increase in footfall into the Hoylake area.
This will all be subject to planning permission being granted.
Why is the Council working with the NHS?
At the last election Labour promised if elected to create a “National Care Service” alongside the NHS, with a shared requirement for single commissioning, partnership arrangements, pooled budgets and joint working arrangements. The Labour Party pledged to “move quickly towards a joined-up service that will signpost users to all the appropriate services at the gateway through which they arrive”.
In Wirral, under our Labour controlled council, we are already moving towards such a system.
Wirral Council has agreed to work even more closely with our NHS colleagues to make services more streamlined and responsive to people’s needs. What we don’t have at the moment, under this Conservative Government, is the extra funding promised by the Labour leadership. But what we do have is the opportunity to work with the local NHS to create a better service for people in Wirral, sharing resources to save money where we can, and making a service which more effectively meets the needs of people who need help.
We have agreed to bring together social care and health care, through a single commissioning system. People have told us they want “improved and more fully integrated services in relation to health and care” – they don’t want to have to tell the same things to different organisations. By working with the NHS locally we aim to deliver “the right care, in the right place, at the right time”.
The business case for this, approved by Wirral’s Labour cabinet, is to pool the £109 million from the Council’s Adult Social Care, Public Health & Children’s Services commissioning budgets together with the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group to create a total budget with a value of around £526 million for commissioning services to deliver of improved outcomes for the population of Wirral.
In addition, Labour Party policy nationally is to halt and review the NHS ‘Sustainability and Transformation Plans’ (STPs), which are looking at closing health services across England, and this is fully supported by the Labour Group in Wirral. It is the Wirral Labour Group who have already led the fight to reinstate Eastham Walk-In centre after its closure.
The Council must produce a balanced budget by March 2018.
We are currently considering measures to enable us to deliver this whilst at the same time delivering our 20 Pledges and ensuring that the budget has a Labour stamp on it.