million-pounds cash

UK Credit Rating Going Down!

There are two meetings in the District Council Chamber this week.

The first is Full Council tomorrow (with Development Committee on Thursday)  The items include:

  • Revised Draft Statement of Community Involvement (how the council consults residents and others on planning policy decisions)
  • Treasury Management Annual Review (where the council deposits its money and manages its cash flow)
  • Lib Dem motion asking for a report following the closure of Rayleigh Police Station
  • The Council’s Pay Policy Statement

The Treasury Management Annual Review isn’t normally very exciting but this year there is at least one point worth mentioning. It has been council policy that we only deposit our money in countries with a credit rating of AA+ or better. However following Brexit, the UK’s credit rating has fallen from AAA to AA, meaning that the UK’s ratiing now falls below council standards! There is a recommendation from officers to change the rules to allow us to  still invest in UK institutions.

On a positive note, the council isn’t borrowing money, so isn’t paying any interest.

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How Not To Save Money

The Guardian reports on how Lambeth Council closed some libraries to save money, but then ended up spending more. It’s a lesson that all councillors could learn from:

A council that temporarily closed two libraries just before the exam revision season as a supposed money-saving measure has spent up to three times as much per day on private guards to secure the buildings as it would have cost to keep them open, it has emerged.

Details of the security costs at the libraries, run by Lambeth council in south London, were given to the Guardian following a freedom of information request.

The money spent on guards at one of the libraries was inflated as it was occupied for 10 days by local people protesting at the temporary closure plans. However, the figures show that even at another library not similarly targeted, the money paid for private security was almost twice the usual running costs.

Full report here.

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An Audit Query

The District Council Audit Committee met last night. It was a fairly dry evening, as most audit committee meetings are. Though it was enlivened by a little farewell speech from one of our external auditors, at his last meeting with RDC after 17 years. “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish” he said…

Chris Black managed to ask a decent question about this item in a report from our external auditors:

audit1As we understand it, there’s a query over whether or not the District Council owes some money to central government in connection with business rates. Chris asked how much money was involved and the answer was £300,000 (!). The council is holding the money in reserve to pay if necessary – but if it isn’t owed after all, that improves the council’s financial position by £300,000.

Chris then asked for a report to come to the next meeting of the audit committee to explain more and update councillors. And just to make it absolutely clear , there’s no suggestion at all of any wrongdoing or irregularities.

 

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If You Are Interested In Council Car Park Income…

The District Council Cabinet meet on Wednesday evening this week, one of the reports they are getting is an update on the council’s financial position. You can download it here.

At the very end of the report is an analysis of the car park income – a modest increase on the previous financial year, following an increase in charges:

car park income

 

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Council Meeting On Tuesday – Setting The Council Tax

The District Council meets this Tuesday night at 7:30. There’s quite a lot on the agenda, but one particular item is setting the council tax:

 

council tax 2016

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Rayleigh  High Street From the Tower

Restaurant Concerns

Chris Black writes:

It was interesting and welcome to see the Conservatives withdrawing their proposal to extend car-parking charges until 9 pm in the evening. It would have brought in more income but would probably have harmed some of the restaurants and eating and drinking places. These places help to keep our town centres viable , they also supply some business rates for the District Council.

I spent last Friday visiting 11 restaurants and one bar – though I didn’t eat anything in them on that day, and just had a glass of beer (which I paid for!). Three-quarters of the proprietors or duty managers I spoke to were either concerned or very concerned about the proposal. Most were concerned about the impact on trade , “nearly all our customers come before 9 pm” one said. Others were also concerned about the extra cost for staff.

I also spoke to businesses that were open only during the daytime – their customers , and their staff , already had to pay for parking, and they weren’t so concerned about the impact on the night-time trade.

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Tonight’s Budget Meeting

Rochford District Council budget meeting finished after about an hour tonight, the main points are:

  • Central government is treating us harshly
  • Our budget is about £10 million a year
  • Due to government cuts and other circumstances over the next few years we will either have to make savings and/ or increase council tax and/or other charges by about £ 2.7 million a year.
  • Tonight we increased council tax by 1.9% with all party support.
  • Car parking charges are going up but the proposal to extend parking charges to 9 pm in the evening was dropped (Chris Black seconded the proposal to drop this)
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    Big Budget Meeting Next Week.

    The District Council has a big budget next Tuesday 9th February, at 7:30. We received the agenda today, so there’s a lot of reading to do, and we will write in more detail later. But two things immediately stand out in the proposals from the Conservative administration:

  • District Council Tax is proposed to rise by 1.93%
  • It is proposed that some car park charges will rise. For example the 1/2 hour charge in the main shopping car parks will rise from 50p to 60p, and the 1 hour charge from £1.00 to £1.20. Saturday afternoons will stay free. However charges will continue in weekday evenings until 9 pm (instead of 7 pm at present). This could have an impact on restaurants and take-aways…
  • As we said above, we will write more late. George Osbourne is giving councils a very hard time at the moment…

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    Timid? Or Just Complaining Quietly?

    Liberal England reports here from Leicestershire:

    Leicestershire’s Conservative MPs were busy retweeting this photograph last week.

    It shows them and the Conservative leader of the county council Nick Rushton meeting the local government minister Marcus Jones to press the case for more generous funding for Leicestershire.

    The Leicester Mercury quoted Sir Edward Garnier, MP for Harborough:

    “The difficult financial situation for Leicestershire County Council means that unless we get an improved funding arrangement, the services that vulnerable people need the most will have to be cut. I know the Minister fully understands the case we made and took into account our concerns as Leicestershire MPs and those of Coun Rushton. We will wait to see what transpires over the next few weeks.”

    I would love to see a more generous settlement for Leicestershire, particularly if Rushton is right to say that we are the lowest funded county council.

    But we are not the only Tory-run county asking for more.

    Over to the Shropshire Star and the new leader of the council there:

    Shropshire Council leaders today called for Government help to stave off the impact of multi-million pound budget cuts.

    Council leader Malcolm Pate and the authority’s chief executive Clive Wright warned that without assistance they face a considerable reduction in the county’s services.

    They have urged either an increase in the amount they can raise in council tax or an alteration of the formula by which councils receive central Government funding.

    The formula cannot be unfair to everybody, so It looks as though Conservatives are really complaining that central government funding is not generous enough. Even David Cameron has been at it.

    And they are right. It is not just the slightly quaint things this blog has a weakness for that will suffer – rural bus services, branch libraries – but central services like adult social care.

    If there is a country vs court rebellion in the Conservative party, with their council leaders rebelling against the cuts they are being compelled to implement, all Liberal Democrats should welcome it.

    Government cuts are biting – biting hard. And residents in Rochford shouldn’t be surprised if the District Council cut back on services, increased charges, and maybe introduced new charges because we are getting less money from central government. We have some talented council officers (both new ones and long-serving ones) who are coming up up with some rational, innovative ways to gain more income and keep a stable long-term budget. But apparently there’s no appetite at all for the Conservative councillors to complain to their party colleagues in parliament that they have got things wrong. One of us said to a thoughtful Tory councillor yesterday “George Osbourne is throwing local Tories to the lions like the Generals did to the troops in World War One”and the councillor didn’t disagree.

    Back when the Council was Lib Dem controlled, we faced a new government policy that would cost us £112,000 in extra housing costs. Our response was to send an all-party delegation, led by Lib Dem Sylvia Lemon to meet with the relevant minister. And we got the cost removed from us.

    Meanwhile, in other news, , the Government seems more generous to Google than with councils.

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    Cllr Steptoe’s Decisions On Council Car Parks

    Mike Steptoe is the affable Tory councillor for Barling and Sutton, and is the cabinet member for “Enterprise”. Which means he’s the person who makes decisions about whether to have free car parking in council car parks at Xmas, and whether to charge the NHS for using car parking spaces for breast screening or other health checks.

    He’s just made the following decisions – you can download the document here.

    First of all, there’s going to be the usual free parking in council car parks on Saturdays mornings in December before Christmas – the 5th, 12th and 19th. However Cllr Steptoe turned down the idea of boosting trade for the sales period by having an extra free Saturday morning after Christmas.

    Secondly, there is the controversial question of whether to charge the NHS for having a breast cancer screening service in one of our car parks. The council currently charges the NHS at a reduced rate – £1066 for a four month period. The new policy is to give a fixed 75% reduction for any organisation serving the public. On this basis the NHS would pay £909 for four months.

    The amounts of money are not huge, and some people will say this is a reasonable compromise. Others will say that the breast screening service is coming to benefit our residents and shouldnt be charged at all. As a comparison, if you were an employer and a cancer screening service were offering to come to your premises free of charge and screen your employees, would you charge them for taking up space in your company car park?

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    Important Stuff:Councils To Keep All Their Business Rates

    At the moment councils collect council tax and business rates. Broadly speaking, councils keep the council tax but pass the business rates back to Central Government. Central government then gives some of that back to councils as government grants

    George Osbourne has announced today that in the future councils will be allowed to keep all business rates from their area. This is going to be a massive change for councils and gives us lots to think about.

    Here’s a few early thoughts:

  • This obviously gives councils great incentives to attract businesses to their areas
  • It’s not clear yet how the money will be shared out between County Councils and District Councils. Will Parish councils get anything?
  • It will encourage councils to work harder to promote their town centres – and might discourage councils from increasing car parking charges
  • It all fits in with the recent discussions about having a combined Essex Authority to attract business and infrastructure. If this goes ahead, it will encourage Essex Councils to pool business rates and to work together – so that if there is a new business park in Essex, all councils might benefit?
  • Business rates do hit some small businesses very hard but rents can hit them very high as well!
  • Mammogram from Wikipedia. The breast on the left is healthy, the one on the right is cancerous

    Review Committee Asks Cllr Steptoe To Re-Think On Breast Cancer Screening Charges

    The Review Committee started the new civic year under its new chairman, Cllr Jerry Gibson. It was a good natured , non-party-political meeting.

    The most significant item was a call-in by Cllr Michael Hoy regarding a decision by Cllr Mike Steptoe on charging for commercial use of council car parks. Councillors weren’t concerned so much about the commercial side but by the fact that RDC charges the NHS for having its mobile breast screening unit in our car parks at various times. This is done at a reduced rate , and the amount involved was fairly small – about £2,200 per year. However most councillors had misgivings about the moral principle of this.

    In the end the committee referred the issue back to Cllr Steptoe, both on the moral ground, and because the report from officers wasn’t very clear. Mike Steptoe now has the final say. He was at the meeting, and listened very carefully. A lot of people will be hoping he changes his mind on this.