HAVING just spent a year working on the 2014/15 Council budget that will start this April, there has barely been time to draw breath before getting down to the challenge for 2015/16.
If we thought that finding £14m savings last year was tough, next year will be harder still as the shortfall is £18m. These are big numbers, which are not always easy to grasp. However, a few have decided to spread inaccurate or misleading statements and there have been three such examples in the last week alone.
First, the Council has no intention to sell Lydiard Park and House. Under Councillor Mike Bawden’s Administration, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, we have invested in restoring it.
All we are seeking to do is to copy successful bodies like English Heritage and make these places more sustainable. It takes a devious mind to go from suggesting we should earn more from teas and coffees to selling off the park.
Second, the Council has not doubled the amount it spends on consultants. Instead, we have increased the amount we spend on specialists.
For example, we need traffic engineers’ specialist knowledge to ensure that our roads are safer, and we use professional support to make sure that the Wichelstowe project is a success. I believe those are precisely the kind of tasks where spending enough money at the right time, on people with the right expertise, delivers substantial savings later on.
Third, I reject suggestions that the only way to run a public body with a £142m net budget is simply to reduce a few figures on the budget report, or change them in a spreadsheet. For instance, some people took a figure of £17,000 for expenditure on refreshments across the whole council and said it could be cut because it was just for bottled water.
If only life were that simple. I return to my opening lines, we need to save £18m. If someone offers you a cut of just £17,000, you should ask him or her: where are the next 1057 savings?
After all, for the past few years all councillors have accepted over 97% of the administration’s budget.
Lastly, I’d like to address some of the concerns about the current leisure options consultation. Our goal is simple: how can we preserve our leisure facilities, including those in historic buildings, without them becoming a huge burden on the tax payer?
If we offer a short lease, as some suggest, the Council will be left with huge liabilities to maintain, repair, and improve the buildings. If we negotiate on longer leases, we can remove that burden from residents. I, for one, would rather keep my eyes focused on our long-term goals.