As we enter 2011, I look back on a successful year for Cotswold District Council with good progress being made on our plans to cut expenditure by £2.2 million over a 5 year period without impacting on our frontline services. It was also gratifying to announce a freeze on council tax rates for 2011-12.
Despite all this good news, the Council faces probably the toughest ever challenges in its history in the year ahead. We had made provisions for a drop in funding from central government, but it came as a real shock to us – and many other Councils – when we learned the scale and timings of the reductions. At Cotswold, our settlement grant from the government will reduce by 31% over the next two years. This amounts to £1.45 million – during this coming financial year (2011/12) it will fall by 16.8% (£858,000) and the following year (2012/13) it will be cut by a further 14.2% (£604,000).
This cut is significantly more than we anticipated in our provisional financial strategy and draft budget for 2011-12. Indeed, we estimated there would be a drop of around £0.5m and this actual cut amounts to three times this amount. To make matters worse, although the Comprehensive Spending Review indicated there might be some ‘front loading’, we thought this would only be at 15% rather than the 31% we now face.
The settlement has been particularly hard for District Councils across the country with the average reduction being 15% in Year One compared to an average reduction of 12.5% for County Councils and 11.3% for Metropolitan Districts. Unfortunately, nationwide figures show that Cotswold has got the worst settlement out of all 353 councils in England but, because of the complexity of the formula grant system, it has not been easy to understand the exact reason for this. This extremely disappointing outcome has prompted a review of the Council’s membership of the Local Government Association (which lobbies Parliament on behalf of local authorities) because we can no longer justify the £13,000 annual fees as good value for taxpayers in the Cotswolds.
So what does it all mean for the Council?
First and foremost it’s good that we started our efficiency programme early and have anticipated a large portion of the cuts over recent years. Our budget for next year already includes a significant level of savings and we are well placed to deliver these. However it does appear now that we will be looking at finding a further £1.2m of additional savings over the next two years. This task is clearly significant and should not be under-estimated coming on top of £1.1m of savings already planned over the same period.
The Cabinet is working with the Senior Management Team to agree new savings plans in January and we currently await the outcome of government consultation papers on the New Homes Bonus and Planning Fees which may help our situation.
I can assure residents that we are striving to maintain our high level of service as we work out how to make further cuts in ‘back office’ functions. It’s too early to outline in detail how we are going to achieve these savings, but we cannot rule out redundancies at the Council and fewer resources may have an impact on the services we deliver.
I will keep you posted of progress as the picture becomes clearer. In the meantime, rest assured that we are all working very hard to provide the best possible service to residents in the face of very trying fiscal constraints and I am sure you will be pleased to know that we have agreed to freeze Members’ allowances for the fourth year running.
Moving on, we would like to apologise to residents who experienced disruptions in the collection of their waste during the run-up to the Christmas break. Despite their best efforts, our waste contractor – SITA – could not possibly have reached some of the towns and villages that were so badly affected by ice and snow. Conditions were lethal in many areas so it was far too dangerous to negotiate most roads with large heavy refuse vehicles – there was not only a risk to SITA’s staff but also to the public generally. Things were so bad that the Fosse Way was closed for a considerable period, and the absence of this vital transport artery to the north of the District compounded the problems that SITA already faced arising from the lack of daylight at this time of year, and the sheer size of the rural area that is Cotswold District.
Less than a year ago a SITA worker was tragically killed while collecting waste and this reminds us all that health and safety is a major consideration. Having said that, I am pleased to note that SITA did not just down tools when the bad weather hit the Cotswolds – in fact, they managed to establish a number of refuse drop-off points around the district when kerbside collections were not possible. They cleared selected CDC car parks when it was safe to do so and many residents were able to bring their bagged refuse to those drop-off points, enabling smaller SITA vehicles to take it away to disposal points.
I would also point out that in these times of lean contracts neither SITA nor CDC have much surplus manpower and resources in reserve to throw at this kind of problem in the Cotswolds. Not least, as planned in advance, the operators were out and about collecting waste on 27th and 28th December and 3rd January even though these three days were official public holidays – accordingly, the three spare days had already been used. The days lost to bad weather meant there was still a significant backlog of waste and recycling to collect going into the New Year, and the timing of the disruptions meant that some households were deprived kerbside collections for much longer than we would have wished – particularly as more waste is generated over a Christmas period. As I write, SITA are deploying some extra resources and are getting on top of this backlog thanks to additional weekend collections. They are also making plans to counter the effects of further ice and snow with the prospect of more waste drop-off points and extra weekend collections if required. Despite the doom and gloom about this issue in some national newspapers, I am pleased that SITA have improved their response compared to last year, and continue to work to alleviate the problems that inevitably arise when normal collections cannot be made.
On a much happier note, it was good to see that our Leisure Centres managed to stay open during most of the adverse weather. In particular, users at Cotswold Leisure Cirencester were delighted to see the installation of brand new equipment just before Christmas. Times may be tough but it is important to encourage everyone to stay fit and healthy, and installing new state-of-the-art kit is always a great incentive for new customers.
And to round things off in an ‘engaging’ way, I can tell you that this district now has the fifth best public conveniences in the country according to the recent Loo of the Year Awards. We have gradually moved up the ‘Loo Premier League’ table each year and this is the first time that we have made the top five. I congratulate all those who have made this possible – cleaning lavatories is not the most glamorous job but it benefits the Cotswolds tourism economy immensely.
Happy New Year to you all.
Leader of Cotswold District Council