Jumat, 06 September 2013

Budget consultation meeting - St Austell

Last night saw the first public meeting to discuss the council's budget for the coming year and the medium term future. It was held in St Austell and we had about 40 people present and a really good debate.

The structure of the meeting is that I give a briefing of the challenge facing the authority - the need to save an extra £23.9 million in 2014/15 and as much as £196 million over the next four years.

I also set out options available. To my mind we cannot simply chip away at services as has been done in the past. In reality, we have to make a choice about what Cornwall Council will look like in four years time - and it won't be the same as it is now. We have to choose to do a few things well and understand that there are some things we will have to stop doing altogether.

But cuts are not the only option. We can also look to increase our income through fees and charges and through higher housing numbers, more renewable energy schemes and selling our services to other organisations. But many of these are controversial issues which need proper debate. There aren't any easy answers.

So I asked what people thought was acceptable and what they thought preferable.

It was good to get such a wide range of views and ideas. Many are those we have already started to consider - but it is good to get views on these. Others were genuinely new ideas and we have undertaken to consider every idea put forward.

Some of the ideas put forward by the people last night were faster and bigger devolution to town and parish councils; ending the subsidy to Newquay Airport; cutting staff numbers and making sure those that remain are as efficient as possible; building more wind turbines; and selling council assets like offices and county farms. All of these will be considered during the budget process.

One question asked - by the current mayor of St Austell and former Cornwall councillor Steve Double - was for a guarantee that the council will retain the number of staff in the town who are currently based there.

This is a guarantee that I can't give at this stage. The policy until now has been to consolidate staff within a town (ie move them to a more efficient central office in the town and out of smaller, more expensive and less efficient offices). That's pretty non-controversial. But there is another debate that I think we must hold about whether we want to go further. I don't have any preconceptions about what the outcome will be. But I can't agree that we should close off debate on issues which could make very significant savings. What is guaranteed is that the debate will be held with local town and parish councils and local Cornwall councillors - not dictated from Truro - and that debate will be held without pre-determined outcomes.

At the end of the meeting I asked for a straw poll on attitudes to council tax levels. I asked people to indicate whether they broadly supported a council tax freeze (and the additional cuts that would be needed if we followed this path); a council tax rise of around 2% as is currently shown in the draft budget; or a rise of 5% which would require the approval of the people of Cornwall in a referendum. This would mean we would only have to make around £18 million of additional savings but it would be at the risk of harsher cuts if the referendum failed. There were 3 votes for the freeze, 15 or so votes for a 2% rise and 4 votes for the 5% rise. This was only indicative (it is not a case of the loudest voice winning through) but I will continue to ask the question at each of the meetings.

Tonight the next meeting takes place in Perranzabuloe Parish Rooms at 6.30.

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