February for many people is the month when romance is in the air but for Local Government it is something quite different – it is the month when we have to set the budget for the coming year and take ever more difficult decisions about what services can be sustained and what level of council tax is right.
Throughout my time as mayor I have supported the Lavender Trust Charity and this year there is an “Alternative Valentine’s Day Dinner” on February the 11th in the Phoenix Restaurant at Lewisham and Southwark College. Why “Alternative”? Because it’s not just a great place for couples but everyone is welcome too – details can be found at http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/mayorandcouncil/mayor/Documents/ValentinesDayDinnerA5.pdf
But it will be the Council’s budget that takes up most time at the Town Hall this month. Of course we work on this all the year round but things become more intense when the Government tell us how much funding they are prepared to provide each December.
It is easy when something you’ve been worrying about turns out to be less painful than expected to breathe a sigh of relief and say “Well that’s OK.” That is exactly how many people reacted to that announcement in December, but they were wrong. It’s not OK.
Council budgets have been hit harder than any other part of the public sector and while we have responded by making ‘efficiency cuts’ we have also had to make cuts that have reduced services. This year’s Settlement changed how and when the loss of Government funding happens to us, but it will still happen.
The Settlement also did something quite unexpected. It told Councils to increase Council Tax! For years Government has been telling us not to increase Council Tax and created incentives to help us do this. Since 2010 Lewisham has only increased Council Tax once but now we have been told to put it up 2% to help fund Adult Social Care and the grant that we have been receiving as a result of freezing Council Tax in previous years is being taken away leaving from us, facing either a further Council Tax rise or even deeper cuts next year.
Over the next few weeks we will have to resolve these dilemmas and we know that there is no easy answer. The services the council provides are important to many residents but we also know that an in increase in Council Tax will be an unpalatable choice for many of you facing rising costs in so many other ways too.
On the other hand I am sure that the students of Lewisham and Southwark College will make sure that the Valentine’s Dinner is extremely palatable!