Thank you, Mr Mayor,
I want to start by adding Councillor Morris's and my own condolences to the friends, families and colleagues of Mrs Pattison after the awful events earlier this month. Our thoughts and prayers are with them all. As they are too with those suffering in Turkey and Syria from the recent earthquake, and in Ukraine as we approach the anniversary of the Russian invasion.
Turning away from those awful tragedies, I want to thank the Council's finance team for producing the voluminous material in front of us this evening. They work hard in a complex environment and have been patient with me in answering points of detail on the underlying Budget Book.
As to the proposed combined recommendation in front of us; in summary our views are very similar to those expressed this time last year and reiterated during committee meetings over the last 12 months. Namely, while we agree with the need to increase the Borough's share of the Council Tax, we cannot support all the activities, or lack of activities, that underpin the Budget and Projections in the rest of the Recommendations. Last year we split our comments between the three headings of Climate Emergency, Resilience and Think Widely. All our comments made last year under those headings remain relevant. I will therefore supplement those historic comments with additional ones on various details in the projections.
We welcome some of the initiatives underlying the figures, for example the use of s106 funds to purchase 3 FamilyHaus MicroHomes for temporary housing. This is an example of what we have been pushing for at these meetings every year - namely the financial benefit of investing our s106 funds quickly (but wisely) to benefit our community before their value is further eroded by inflation. We also welcome the new Strategic Housing Manager to the team and hope further imaginative and cost-effective ways of investing our remaining s106 and other capital reserves can be found. The former still stands at over £1m and we are disappointed that the potential to convert unoccupied council-owned office buildings is not being investigated, despite my suggestion at the recent Strategy & Resources meeting. We would have budgeted for a higher capital investment aiming to reduce the costs of temporary housing. Sometimes a better bottom line can be achieved by reducing costs rather than increasing income.
These homelessness costs are one of the items in the budget with which we have concerns. The budget assumes the average number of families needing support falls during the coming year from 70 to 58 - with a consequent fall in the overall costs of homelessness of around £0.25 million. Despite the plans set out by the Housing team in their Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Strategy, this budgeted fall in cost is likely to be optimistic given the ongoing national economic situation that is expected to further increase the problem. As you know, the UK is the only G7 country whose GDP has not recovered to where it was before COVID, and the only one whose GDP the IMF expects to fall during 2023. Thank you Conservatives for getting us into this mess.
While asking the Housing team to try to reduce the use of expensive temporary accommodation is sensible, we feel that embedding targets into a budget could either be financially optimistic or could lead to inappropriate actions if adherence to budgets is given precedence on doing the right thing for families in need.
Another area of potentially dangerous optimism is the forecast increase in car park revenue of £400,000 compared to the expected outcome for the current year. While I recognise that a new anchor tenant has been found for the Ashley Centre, we doubt whether this will lead to a significant increase in visits. Naturally we could be wrong, but are concerned that baking this allowance into the formal budget could lead to difficulties during the year. Anyway, given the Climate Emergency surely we should be encouraging people to walk, cycle and use public transport? Where is the budget for that?
Turning to the overall staff budget of £13.6m, while no-one wants to see staff over-stretched and stressed, we remain disappointed that the budget appears to have been set using a roll-forward approach from the previous budget rather than a bottom-up assessment of what our citizens really want us to do for them. We have not seen the results of any investigation to see whether changes in the nature and composition of our staff could lead to both lower costs and better service to our residents.
The reason I question the nature of our staff costs is that the purpose of the Council is to serve our citizens and meet our legal obligations. I want to call out two recent failures in this area - and I am not convinced that the financial projections in front of us tonight allow for their remedy.
First, the way the continued intrusive noise and pollution from the Chalk Pit site has caused intense distress to numerous families. The problems started back in the summer of 2020 but it took nearly a year before attempts were made to address the issue. Ever since, despite the continued efforts of local residents, the operators of the site appear to be able to act with impunity. Our citizens' input and evidence on the issue seems to be given insufficient priority while the three principal organisations involved in this topic, including this Council, engage in continual buck-passing of responsibility. The local residents involved have lost confidence in the quality of the monitoring being carried out by the officers and in the ability of the political leadership of this Council to tackle the issue. It seems the RA wants Epsom to become Skip City.
Second, and I understand that all the RA Councillors are aware of this, the lives of a family have been ruined by the actions of an individual over the last 4 years. The family has now decided to sell their house and leave the area, an area where they were born and brought up and wished to continue to serve. As a result of trying to deal with that individual and the consequences of his actions, I understand that findings against this Council have been made by both the Local Government Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner. Under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, section 5, all councillors should have been notified of these failures. I raised this issue 10 days ago at the Audit & Scrutiny committee and have not received the promised reply.
In my opinion, we need an investigation to find the root cause of all of these failures and to make sure our priorities and staffing are focused on delivering our core obligations to our citizens. I have not seen any evidence that this have been given sufficient emphasis in these financial forecasts. Whilst we may budget for the continuation of basic services and the ruling RA group is keen to publicise that these have not been cut or reduced, when it comes to these critical human issues affecting people's lives, it seems there is little political or executive leadership and insufficient resources, financial or otherwise, to properly deal with them. There is also an apparent lack of transparency in adhering to the Constitution and keeping all Councillors informed of important internal and regulatory developments.
In summary, while we agree with the proposed rates of Council Tax, we cannot support the wider aspects of the Council's future direction under the current RA leadership that is encapsulated in these papers.
Thank you Mr Mayor.