Monday, March 05, 2007

Budget Comment (Ute)

From Ute:

As I have taken the lead for the Greens on the Council on our budget proposals, Sue has offered me the opportunity to contribute a piece on local authority budgets in general and on the Council meeting on Thursday 1 March which agreed Lewisham’s 2007/08 budget.

When we prepared our budget proposals, we decided to focus on two areas from our election manifesto – waste/recycling and support for local shops. In addition we included a proposal to continue an access to schooling programme for refugee and asylum seeker children and one to provide seed funding for renewable energy in schools which was required in order to generate considerable external funding for this scheme. Details of these are included in Sue’s previous posting.

We also looked at the budget which had been proposed by the Mayor. For any local authority there are many conflicting priorities and sometimes tough decisions have to be made as to how to allocate the money that is available. In a number of cases the Council is at the mercy of central government as funding streams and strategic priorities are decided in Westminster; this applies, for example, to adult education and adult social care. Lewisham Council has earmarked £1.3M in the 2007/08 budget to cover a funding shortfall for adult education from the Learning & Skills Council.

By far the greatest individual budget pressures exist in adult social care due to increasing demand and less funding being channelled through the NHS without an equivalent increase in social care funding for local authorities which have to pick up the pieces. In Lewisham this has led to a projected overspend of £7.2M in 2007/08 which has to be contained within the overall budget. The original proposal by the Mayor would have meant that part of this would be made available from reserves with the expectation that following statutory consultation £1.612M would be returned in savings. This would effectively have pre-empted the outcome of the consultation.

We thought that this didn’t make sense at all and proposed to fully commit these £1.612M from reserves as a one-off measure to buy time and allow for a meaningful co-operation with service users on how to shape services in the future. Clearly it is unsustainable to continue funding such shortfalls from reserves in the future, however laudable the cause. However, it is important at this stage to remove pressures of immediate savings to enable all parties involved to work in a more collaborative way which should hopefully lead to better solutions for service users.

Shortly after our budget proposal was published the Mayor announced that he was going to do just that.

In addition we included a reversal of savings for respite care and of equalising service offers in our budget proposal, which brought the total of our proposed reversal of adult social care savings to almost £1.8M – or 25% of the total budget pressure in the Mayor’s proposal.

In total our budget proposal came to just under £2.1M and we made sure it was balanced – we did not want to just come up with a wish list but identified funding for all our expenditure items. We also ensured that our proposals were technically feasible and legally sound. The Mayor eventually incorporated all our expenditure items in the budget proposal that was submitted to Council and we decided to support the budget on that basis.

As I said at the Council meeting on Thursday, I am proud of what we achieved with our budget proposals. We were the only party in the Council to even address the adult social care budget pressure and to come up with a feasible proposal that then got majority support. Whilst this will not solve all the problems of this borough, it is a starting point – it will make Lewisham greener and socially more responsible and provide support to local businesses. Opposition councillors have two options: they can simply complain that the world is bad, or they can make constructive proposals and take decisions on an issue-by-issue basis when they can make a real difference. We have chosen to do the latter.


Cllr Ute Michel

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