Town Hall View: Striking right balance in budget

Peterborough City Council leader, Marco Cereste in 2013. Photo: Alan Storer/Peterborough Telegraph
Peterborough City Council leader, Marco Cereste in 2013. Photo: Alan Storer/Peterborough Telegraph
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We may be just a few days into the New Year, but it’s well and truly back to business at the town hall.

That’s because on Friday (9 January) we publish our second phase of budget proposals which will balance the city’s budget for 2015/16.

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Related: Freeze in council tax charges for Peterborough residents, 8 January

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We know how important it is to residents that we manage the city’s finances in a prudent and proper manner, so I am pleased that yet again we have managed to balance our budget. We have, as always, maintained the services that are so important to all of you, whilst focussed on greater efficiency to achieve this.

I’m also pleased to say that the proposals will include a council tax freeze for our residents. This means we will continue to have one of the lowest council tax levels in the country – the sixth lowest out of 56 unitary authorities.

Some people will no doubt ask how we can afford to freeze council tax at a time when we have to make so many savings. It’s a fair question to ask, but the fact is that we will receive a grant from the government if we do.

If we were to increase council tax by two per cent, the maximum amount we’re allowed without holding a referendum, taxpayers in Peterborough would be paying an extra £1.2million. However, at the same time we would lose a government grant awarded to those councils that freeze council tax, and as such this increase would only actually generate an additional £500,000.

We know our residents are facing their own financial pressures and that is why we are proposing to accept the government grant and keep council tax as low as possible.

The full set of phase two proposals will be published tomorrow and will be available to view on our website. Following the Cabinet meeting on 19 January, we’ll be asking you to once again have yoursay, so that we can consider your comments before agreeing the final budget on 4 March.

I often get asked whether it’s worthwhile taking part in consultations, but this year’s Budget Conversation is proof that it is.

In November we announced our first phase of budget proposals, which detailed how we would begin to save in the region of £25million next year. At the same time we launched our Budget Conversation which asked people to tell us what they thought of the proposals.

Following the feedback we received, we deferred a proposal relating to savings associated with the closure of four of the city’s seven bowling greens and shrub removal, which attracted a lot of interest from the public. This was to allow the discussion to continue.

In addition, the proposal to introduce charges for blue badge holders to park in council car parks led to requests for more accessible spaces. Therefore the second phase proposals include a commitment to work with the Disability Forum to see if we can achieve this. A proposal to allow companion bus passengers (those, for example, who help blind or partially sighted people travel on buses) to travel for free is also included following feedback.

On 17 December, councillors approved this first phase of proposals which amounted to £16.6million. However, in total we need to save £25.3million – that’s £500,000 worse than we first envisaged because the government announced just before Christmas that our grant would be £12.8million less next year – not the £12.3million for which we had planned.

In the five years up to the end of 2015/16 we will have seen our government funding cut by 40 per cent (£44million).

Our second set of proposals, which detail how the remaining £8.2million savings will be made, will close the budget gap altogether.

There’s no denying that this year’s budget setting process has been one of the most testing, but equally I am proud of what the city continues to achieve in these challenging times.

What’s crucial is achieving the right balance between continuing to invest in our city to attract new investment and jobs, whilst making savings and efficiencies, and I believe this year’s budget strikes the right balance.

- Peterborough City Council leader gives his view on the council and news and issues affecting you.

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