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Liberal Democrat run St Albans Council proposes to deliver £2.2m savings with no increase to Council Tax in 2011/12

by awitherick on 17 February, 2011

St Albans City and District Council’s Liberal Democrat Cabinet have agreed, proposals for a budget for 2011/12 that ensures that nobody in the District will have to pay more District Council related Council Tax than last year, and delivers £2.2m of savings whilst protecting residents’ essential services and support for organisations helping vulnerable people locally. The Cabinet has recommended the budget to full Council who will consider the details at its meeting on 23 February.

The main features of the proposed budget are:

  • No increase in the District Council’s element of Council Tax, or, in some parts of the District, an actual reduction on tax
  • Savings of £2.2m
  • Changes to the Council’s structure that will prepare it to meet both long term and immediate operational challenges
  • Protection of essential services for residents
  • Support for the vulnerable locally
  • Capital financing to maintain the Council’s priorities

The Council recognises that the country is emerging from a recession and residents are faced with rising inflation and the possibility of an increase in interest rates later in the year. Assuming full Council approves the budget, this will be the third year in a row that the District Council’s element of Council Tax will not increase.

However, the Government has now reduced the Council’s grant by 16.2% for 2011-12 and 14.2% for 2012-2013 which together will result in a cumulative 28% reduction in revenue support grant funding over the next two years. This means that the Council needs to make savings of £2.2m for 2011-12 to help bridge the budget gap.

A significant portion of the savings are to be achieved through a reorganisation of the Council that will reduce the number of departments from 10 to seven. The reorganisation has been designed to protect frontline services.

The key changes are:

  • The development of an integrated regulatory service, combining the enforcement functions of environmental health, licensing, car parking and waste management to improve service delivery.
  • The transfer of private sector housing functions to the housing department – to include home renovation grants, disabled facilities grants and houses in multiple occupation – developing a co-ordinated approach to housing provision covering private and public sector housing.
  • A new culture and heritage development team linking arts, cultural and heritage activities, markets and tourism development.
  • An integrated approach to contract management, property and asset management and commercial development activities.
  • An integrated planning department bringing together design, conservation, street-scene development, landscape, trees, infrastructure and transport.
  • Within the planning department, an integrated development management team bringing together technical administration and professional planning functions to ensure clarity of roles, clear ownership of individual applications and the removal of double handling.
  • The amalgamation of the Council’s work on community engagement, community safety, partnership working, consultation, research, corporate planning, economic development, health and environmental sustainability into two, practically focused, teams.
  • Increased focus on the Council’s accountancy and budget management functions.
  • Development of the Council’s website and e-communications capability to help improve accessibility to residents and deliver services online.
  • The amalgamation of two departments dedicated to internal resources – Human Resources and IT with Customer Services – to increase customer focus in these areas.

The reorganisation will result in a reduction of 25-30 posts in 2011. These will mostly be met through the deletion of posts that are currently vacant and voluntary redundancies, which will save £250,000 in 2011/12, and £700,000 p.a. thereafter. It is likely that there may also need to be some compulsory redundancies. In the longer term, the Council’s structure is likely to reduce from its current 408 posts to under 350.

The proposed budget ensures that the Council will be able to meet its statutory obligations as well as ten priorities which are set out in the Council’s Corporate Plan 2011-16. The Plan, which has been revised and was approved by Cabinet at this week’s meeting, will now be considered by full Council at a meeting on 23 February.

Residents views on the budget and the ten priorities were sought through the Council’s Community Panel, a representative selection of people from across the District. Feedback was broadly supportive and specific ideas and views have been fed into the Corporate Plan and the budget development process.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Roger Axworthy, Portfolio Holder for Resources and Efficiencies, said: “We are aware that, as we emerge from a recession, money for many residents is tight. This proposed budget would make it the third year in row that the Council has not increased its Council Tax rate for residents, with people paying less year on year taking account of inflation.”

“We have worked hard to find significant savings to achieve this at a time when government has reduced the Council’s grant by 16.2% for 2011-12. To help deliver the £2.2m savings that are needed, the Council is being reorganised. Although posts will be lost, the bulk of these will come from the deletion of vacant positions and voluntary redundancies. Every effort is being made to protect frontline services as we recognise that these are needed now more than ever.”

Cllr Robert Donald, Leader of the Council commented: “A significant number of our residents are facing harder times this year than last with the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts, tax changes and cost of living rises all taking effect. I am very pleased therefore that for the third year running we have again been able to recommend a freeze in the District Council Tax for 2011/12 to help every resident. Indeed for some residents in the parishes they will actually experience a reduction. Achieving this has meant finding efficiencies and savings of £2.2m involving a major restructuring of council departments and the loss of around 25 senior posts. However, many of these will be achieved through early retirements and voluntary redundancies.

“Most importantly for residents essential frontline services have not been cut and we have been able to honour our previous promise to support the voluntary organisations who can best help the most vulnerable locally by maintaining grants at the same 2010 level, increasing funding to the Centre for Voluntary Services and improving access for all residents to information and support across a range of services by piloting a ‘one stop’ shop Local Services Hub with the Local Strategic Partnership.

“We have also still been able to budget to maintain progress in implementing the Council’s priorities* and to balance the need for savings with some investment in the future economic growth of our District via our capital infrastructure projects. For example the building of the new Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre and the redevelopment of the Malting Arts Theatre to show digital/3D films on a regular basis from later this autumn to meet a much expressed need particularly identified by local young people.

“But this budget goes further than I have ever witnessed before as it identifies efficiencies involving elected members themselves. I am very aware from both national comments and from our own local budget consultation meetings that the public expect councillors to share the pain of the current financial austerity measures the country is suffering. I have therefore proposed a package of measures to reduce the cost of the democratic process over the next three years while not harming the principle of democratic representation. These include: reducing the number of Cabinet portfolio holders, freezing all members allowances for the second year in a row, downsizing the number of committees and, most radically, reducing the number of District councillors elected for each ward from three to two. These measures will save approximately £200,000 p.a. if finally adopted.

“A budget then for hard times but one which seeks to be fair to all, including the vulnerable, and one which still aspires to deliver the Council’s priorities and quality essential services to residents. Above all it is a budget which demonstrates that we are all in this together and Members are prepared to suffer some cutbacks along with every one else.”

Laura Cronshaw, Chief Executive of the Centre for Voluntary Services said:

“St Albans City and District Council is to be applauded in its pledge to maintain its current level of investment in the voluntary sector, this decision protects the most vulnerable in our society. The funds we receive will help us to support local charities and community groups and those who want to volunteer and in doing so make the Big Society work in practice locally.”

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