The Guildford Borough Council budget is a difficult budget for difficult times. At a time of wage stagnation and price inflation, Guildford Labour are uncomfortable about agreeing a 3% rise to the Council Tax.
It goes without saying that we are horrified by the 6% increase levied by Surrey County Council, a decision that represents a longstanding failure by that council to get a grip on adult social services. Most of all, though, it represents the uncaring nature of this Tory Government’s ongoing austerity drive – where austerity means forcing local authorities, police and fire chiefs to make brutal cuts to services at a time of rocketing demand. It means, inevitably, that councils like Guildford are forced to take the blame when services our residents rely on are reduced or shelved altogether.
Where services were previously funded with help from the Government through the revenue support grant, this has been callously scrapped from this year. Councils now have to build their budgets around council tax returns and retained business rates, the latter of which are not guaranteed and are likely to be taken away by Whitehall. This steady erosion of local government since 2010 has been pedalled under the “localism” moniker, but it is ideologically-driven from the centre and often in opposition to the views of local people, including many Conservatives.
While we have reservations about the length of time some of the council’s main capital projects appear to be taking – in particular the North Street regeneration programme – we are pleased to see that others, like the long-promised transformation of the museum and castle precinct is on the cards for this year. We are pleased too that provision is made for the bike share scheme and for the initiation of the Guildford West station; projects that, in different ways, will transform the transport network in the borough and boost the economy to the west of the town.
We support innovation in ways of working, in ways of managing finances and ways in which the council can invest to save. What we do here should be about providing the best value for money for our residents and finding ways to provide the services and kind of town they want and need. That is the bottom line. We do not believe in taking a dogmatic approach to economic management and service provision – as long as it is affordable, sensible, effective and accountable, we are open to all ideas about how we achieve the best outcomes for our borough.
We urge a note of caution for the future though. Local government will be squeezed further by central government. Demand for services will increase as the means of paying for them will decrease. Councils will reach the limit of how much extra they can wring from efficiency drives and service transformation. In short, we will all need to think about what this council will look like in five to ten years’ time.
We will need to plan and prepare radical policies, change our delivery mechanisms, and, most importantly, manage the expectations of residents living under a system decimated by eight years (and counting) of this destructive, Conservative government.