Opinion: ‘Quick fix approach to council budget has failed’

Councillor Shaz Nawaz, Labour Group leader on Peterborough City Council, writes...

Sunday, 21st November 2021, 3:15 pm
The city council's finances face a huge challenge.

A document titled “Local Government Finance Review” is unlikely to set the pulse racing.

However, on November 2, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities issued a report with this title about Peterborough Council’s performance.

The conclusions are damning.

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A leading paragraph in the report tells the tale: “The financial challenges facing the council are significant and urgent… although the council has made savings these have not been at the level to meet the scale of the challenge and the council has continued to increase its net service spend and spend on capital projects.

“As a result, the council has used one-off receipts to balance the budget, including reducing reserves.”

It also states: “Of most concern is the inclusion of amounts for an increase in Council Tax above the statutory level for which there is no agreement. The council also has limited reserves… and at the end of 2019/20 had the lowest ratio of reserves to service expenditure of any of the council’s near neighbours.”

The report suggests that the council should reduce its capital spend.

I understand why they are saying this, however capital spend, if deployed wisely, can increase revenues. For example, if we have better infrastructure for business and industry, then they are more likely to come here and pay taxes.

The document catalogues reasons for this terrible mismanagement: however, it states that one of the causes is that there is no overall control of the council.

While technically the council does not have a Conservative majority, the Conservatives have been running Peterborough Council for 20 years.

It is their policies and agendas which have been implemented. They have been supported by Tory-led Westminster governments for over 11 years. The mismanagement is theirs, the dire situation that we are in is their responsibility.

By most measures, Peterborough has been badly served.

The pandemic period has only highlighted the weaknesses in how our city is managed and run. We have an administration that has mainly coasted by, hoping that the occasional splash of cash on big capital projects will see it through. It reacts to crises rather than anticipates them.

It tries to plug holes in its budgets with quick fixes. Even central government is now saying this approach has failed.

As the end of the year approaches and thoughts turn to 2022, it’s time to make some hard-headed decisions.

We, the voters, are in essence the non-executive board of directors for the city: what do we think of the administration team running it, considering their results? If this was a private company, we would be looking at firing the old team and hiring a new one.

It’s no longer enough for the existing administration to suggest that the voters should keep them in because the alternative would be worse. That is a fear mongering supposition on their part: when looking at actual results, we can say this administration’s performance has been shown to be lacklustre.

It’s time to start building a momentum for change, for a new team with fresh ideas to take over. Sticking with the old way of doing things is getting us nowhere. Well, it kind of is, because we are drowning slowly and painfully.