As the Government’s deficit reduction programme continues, and we enter planning for an eighth year in this ‘age of austerity’, Peterborough city councillors from all parties will need to work together to make savings. The financial squeeze imposed on us by Westminster continues and it is sad to say that I expect the overall picture still looks gloomy.
Nationally, the Conservative Party was re-elected at the last general election, and so it was allowed to continue with swingeing cuts to local authorities’ spending power. The size of Peterborough’s share of the ‘pot’ for next year will not be known at this stage, but I expect we are in for more of the same. There is no escaping the fact that we are all in this together, but I am beginning to worry that unless we work as a collective body, no matter which party runs the council, Peterborough will not reap the rewards it deserves.
As a unitary authority, city has so much going for it these days. The latest Opportunity Peterborough’s annual Economic Intelligence Report shows an economy on a trajectory towards growth and success, with data showing net business creation at 43% above the UK average, more than 8,000 net new jobs in the last six years and GVA growth up 8% on the previous year. At this rate of success, the local economy itself will deliver increased revenue and a greatly improved benefit for council tax-payers. Naturally, as elected members we should want to be a part of that success, but no matter how miniscule a contribution we provide to that process, I just hope we make the right decisions when called upon.
Our role in the bigger picture is a small but important part of helping with the city’s growth. All authorities must set a balanced budget and level of council tax for the following year and members will vote on acceptance (or not) at their annual budget meeting. Many local authorities, including Peterborough, have managed the government’s budget reductions and continue to live within their means, but some experts say that next year may be the tipping point for some, when pressures could become so acute for them and the potential for financial failure a real risk. So far, Peterborough has met the challenge of these pressures every year and I would expect it would still be able to meet its statutory obligations to manage and deliver public services. The schedule for planning and an eventual delivery is very tight, but that could be made so much easier if the body of elected members adopt a collective and consensual approach to planning for next year’s budget.
Just like many other well-meaning and hard-working councillors, I despair of the devastation the impact of government cuts has had on our society, especially for those people who may need our help, and as we discuss the financial plan at these meetings I am sure I will be joined in these sentiments by members of the city’s ruling party. As has been the case in recent years, and as a result of constraints with funding outside even their control, I expect they will also have some tough decisions to make.
The essence of my ramblings on this page is a call for unity in the council chamber – for a change. Some will think I am being simplistic and have the wrong idea about local politics, but I am growing so tired of hearing from critics that carry an adversarial style of politics, and usually when the argument has no scope to succeed. The public purse has a limited income and will only stretch so far, yet local diehards appear to always express opposition to everything laid down by the council’s ruling party, a dogma that is perhaps borne from a somewhat medieval belief they must oppose the administration regardless. I do appreciate that democracy must allow freedom of speech and expression of one’s own beliefs, but I now feel that on this issue it is time to move away from the old-style of confrontational exchanges that have characterised previous budgets, and join a collective experience with all parties – including independents.
Yes, it is only right that we might hold conflicting views, and we can disagree when the time is right, but just for now I ask that we shelve any underlying distrust or political vendettas, agree to work with what we have got for now and then move forward in a shared vision to help the council deliver quality services.