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Labour announce "big, bold and ambitions" Budget


On Monday night, the Labour's budget for Oxford City Council was passed with an overwhelming majority. Here is a summary of what was announced. 

  • No service cuts proposed in this budget

  • A capital programme of over £226 million, including:

    • Investment of up to £61 million in our new local housing company

    • Over £20 million on new affordable housing at Barton

    • £10 million on property purchases to support homeless people

    • Over £20 million on improvements to council properties

    • Over £4 million on “Great Estates” to improve our council estates

    • A commitment of over £1.3 million to regenerate central Blackbird Leys

    • Over £1.3 million for new council bungalows

    • Over £4 million in funding for community centres

    • The new sports complex at Horspath Road – externally funded

    • Over £2 million on the Museum of Oxford development – externally funded

    • Major investment in flood alleviation and “Go Ultra Low” to promote electric vehicles

    • £200,000 to support equity loans for teachers to support local schools in recruitment and retention

  • Retention in full of funding for council tax support – one of only 41 out of 326 councils to do this
  • Retention in full of funding for homeless services – in contrast to the County Council’s deletion of these

  • Retention of an independent housing advice service

  • Retention of our funding of arts and cultural organisations in Oxford

  • A new pot to support “stay and play” sessions for children after the county council’s wave of cuts, as well as continued support for holiday playschemes and the Youth Ambition team

  • Retain the services of a city centre manager, after funding for a joint post was cut by the County Council

  • All this in the context of deletion of revenue support grant by government, and reduction of new homes bonus payment

 

Budget speech 2017 - Cllr Ed Turner, Board Member for Finance

Lord Mayor, it is my pleasure to propose, once again, the proposals of this Labour administration for our council budget for the forthcoming year to you. Many aspects of this year’s process have been familiar to me – first of all, the sterling support of council officers in the finance section, and amongst the corporate management team, for working on the process with efficiency, precision and a real commitment to doing the best thing for the council, genuinely playing for the team rather than “batting” for individual service areas. Secondly, we owe a great debt of thanks to our tremendous workforce. Our workers have, once again, delivered. Over the last nine years, we have delivered over £24 million in efficiency savings, some of these coming from our excellent partnership with our trade unions, Unison and Unite. Many more savings have come from the good ideas brought to us by our workforce. Often, we have saved money and delivered social benefits at the same time, for instance in changing the way we help local homeless families. I know that our staff are passionate, committed to our organisation, and committed to the ideals of public service and to reducing the gap between rich and poor in our city. I want them to know that this is enormously appreciated not just by councillors, but by our wider community – if you want to know, take a look at the comments in the “Hands off Oxford” petition from people who appreciate the services they provide and who are horrified at county council’s proposal to abolish their city council. Thirdly, I would like to thank the Finance Scrutiny panel for doing a diligent and thoughtful job, and to whose recommendations we have attempted to respond positively. I would note, more widely, that opposition budgets cover only a very small part of the activity of our council’s expenditure – I remain convinced that probably more unites councillors in this chamber than divides us, and this testifies to the distinctive values which exist in our city. Finally, I want to thank the Labour group, who yet again have been excellent in supporting the budget process, working in a comradely way, pushing our officers very hard indeed to get the best for the communities who need our support, and who, even with all the difficult decisions we have to take, show how it is possible, even as the world around us is in a state of ever increasing chaos, to put socialist principles into practice when you have the privilege of leading a city council in a place like Oxford. It requires an active council, a council that believes in rolling up its shirtsleeves to make a difference – that is what our budget will show us to be.

Yet again, we have to note the utterly bleak context of local government finances. Each year, officers make a forecast of likely government settlements. Each year, I press them on whether they are being overly pessimistic, and each year they are proven more or less right. This year, we’ve have had the ending of revenue support grant by 2019/20, a reduction in business rates as a result of “fairer funding” (some spin doctor must be having a chuckle over that term), and a major reduction in New Homes Bonus, flying in the face of the results of the government’s own consultation. On top of that, the environment in which we operate is riskier than ever before – the government is cranking up pressures on those on low incomes, through the continued freeze on housing benefit rates and a lowering of the household benefit cap, sending ever more people desperate to food banks and loan sharks – in this budget, we propose maintaining funding for our welfare reform team and our network of local advice centres, so we can do our bit in assisting those at the sharp end. Moreover, we are highly exposed to fluctuations in business rate income. Councillors will know that, quite recklessly, the position of Oxford’s economy, especially the automotive, scientific, educational and tourism sectors has been needlessly, senselessly jeopardised by the referendum on Brexit, and the risks posed not only to our council’s finances, but also to jobs and prosperity in Oxford, are significant.

As councillors, we take pride in staying in touch with our communities, and are hugely aware of the hardship caused by the lack of genuinely affordable housing. This week, as in most weeks when I’ve been a councillor, I’ve had some heartrending calls and emails – from people in uncertain accommodation situations, facing eviction or rent increases they can’t afford, and desperate for the security of a council tenancy (now just relative security thanks to the government’s attacks on council housing). We owe it to people to do our darndest to build more housing. And that is what this budget proposes: over £61 million in financing for our new local housing company, encompassing over £20 million for new social rented homes at Barton, £10 million to purchase properties as temporary accommodation, over £1 million for new bungalows. And we are not simply handing land over to private developers, instead we are developing land ourselves or taking a major stake in new joint ventures, like at Barton and the West End, so that we can build the sort homes, and the sort of communities, that we ourselves would want to live in. I doubt there can be another district council anywhere in the country with this scale of ambition, this hunger to get its housing problems solved, anywhere in the country – and let me just make this point: if our council is abolished, as part of a grubby Tory backroom deal and handed to the people who have made a political career out of obstructing new housing, I think we should all be clear of the bleak, bleak consequences it will have for those desperate for somewhere in our great city they can call home.

Our investment is not just about new housing. Our HRA budget includes over £20 million on improvements to council properties, over £4 million on the great estates programme to improve the quality of the local environment on council estates, and over £1.3 million towards the regeneration of the centre of Blackbird Leys. This theme of investing in communities has brought dividends in the past, as anyone who has been around the new Rose Hill community centre, and seen the buzz and excitement this has brought to my home community, can testify. We have over £4 million lined up for investment in community centres going forward, money for new skateparks, and we have won external funding for the Museum of Oxford, and of course are progressing the new, state-of-the-art sports arena at Horspath Road, again funded externally.

This investment occurs at the same time as we are protecting front-line services. For sure, there are things we would rather not be doing – for instance, nobody likes increasing garden waste charges, even though of course these are still comparatively modest. But over the next four years, in this medium term financial strategy, there is not one front-line service cut proposed. That is, in these straightened times, a truly remarkable aspect and one in which I hope all councillors can take a healthy pride, noting, once again, what we owe to the staff who make it possible.

Particularly important in a place like Oxford is supporting the most vulnerable. As Labour councillors we get angry about inequality – every time I hear the statistic about a man from one of our poorest areas living ten years less, on average, than a man from one of the most prosperous, my blood boils. That is ten years when a family will lack a father, or a grandfather; ten years of retirement which someone who has worked hard all his life will miss out on, simply by the accident of where he is born. Some of the tools to solving this problem – notably redistribution of wealth – are outwith what we can do as a council, but we owe it to those families to leave no stone unturned to hammer inequalities wherever we can. In this budget, we propose maintaining our spend, in full, on our council tax support scheme (at the last count, one of just 41 out of 326 councils to do so), rather than sending bailiffs scuttling after those who simply don’t have the money to pay. I am certain, too, that our support for advice agencies will make a real difference here. When it comes to health inequalities, those at the very sharpest end are those who sleep on the streets or in a homeless hostel, whose average age at death is 47 for men, just 43 for women. When we learned of the County Council’s proposal to end funding for homeless hostels, it was the city council which stepped forward and said to all the agencies, let’s come together and try to save something from this wreckage. We are preserving every penny of funding for homeless services over the next four years in our medium term financial plan, and have succeeded in persuading other district councils and the clinical commissioning group to do so as well. I just hope that the scale of the problem, and frankly the moral urgency of tackling rough sleeping, makes the county council rethink its priorities and support homeless hostels into the future.

Young people in Oxford, too, remain a priority. We know that, for all manner of reasons, educational attainment in many schools is not what it should be – the fact that Oxford is the seventh lowest district in the country at writing and thirteenth lowest at maths at key stage one is an absolute scandal and, to be honest, it shows another inequality – that the city’s greatness as a seat of learning is not helping many of our youngsters in the slightest. Again, we don’t have all the levers at our disposal, but we are maintaining funding for the loans to support teachers to buy a property – and of course what we can do is offer other activities to support young people outside the classroom. We are pleased to continue our funding for holiday playschemes, for street sports activities, our grant funding for arts oragnisations to reach out into communities that might not otherwise access what they have to offer, and our award-winning youth ambition team.

So we are, Lord Mayor, a “can do” council. We see problems – huge problems – but we don’t just get miserable, we get angry, we get up, and we get active and do something about them – it is, if you like, the same sort of spirit that Joseph Chamberlain brought to Birmingham when he talked of his “abiding faith in municipal institutions, … abiding sense of the value and importance of local self-government”. It means we invest in services, and sell them to the wider community – I hope we will take a step forward on this by creating our own new direct services company, allowing us to trade more widely. We are setting up our local housing company, we have ambitious partnerships with the private and not for profit sectors when it comes to housing delivery, helping homeless people, tackling climate change – we welcome good ideas and we will work with any friends and partners on our journey to make Oxford a fairer place.

It will not have escaped members’ notice, however, that this is all under threat. Another authority, with a very different set of values, is proposing a hostile take-over. The record speaks for itself – botched privatisations (the one where my local school had to close for days on end because the heating didn’t work and the private contractor didn’t sort it; the one that is chaotic with roadworks). The one who has presided over a dismal record when it comes to educational attainment, which has led a wave of sackings in the youth service, the one which has shut children’s centres left, right and centre, in spite of very clear evidence of need. The one whose dreadful external relationships made it one of the last in the country to get together a Better Care Fund plan with the health service, in spite of a rotten record on delayed discharge of people from hospital to home. The one which, rather than setting a four year budget, chops and changes every year, comes scuttling along for another round of cuts, rather than planning its finances in a sensible way for the long term. Now I appreciate that there are serious pressures from social care and in needing to maintain children’s services, with growing demand. But I don’t think that excuses some of the nonsense that has gone on – abolishing the post of chief executive, with a big pay-off attached, then recreating the role (and appointing to it without a proper, open advertisement) just months later, or showing a consistent willingness to be taken for mugs by the private sector promising the earth in outsourced services. And it really, really doesn’t excuse launching the vanity project of local government reorganisation, spending money on focus groups just days after voting to close day centres due to lack of funds, and wasting so much time and energy that should be devoted to running services properly. We are a can-do council, a council that puts faith in our own workforce, a council that leaves no stone unturned in its desire to make a difference in local communities. All that, all the good work in this budget, is at risk from this hostile takeover bid, the bid to create a monster council, where of course decisions will be taken away from the hands of the citizens of Oxford, and, if the record of the county council is anything to go by, where delivery will be taken from public servants and handed over to whichever outsourcing company has the best powerpoint show on procurement day. I’ve not spent my fifteen years on the council to see our record ripped to shreds, to see our values dumped on the scrapheap, and I dare say that goes for many of us, with much longer a record of service than me. So I make no apology – we will do everything it takes to defeat this hostile takeover bid and stand up for our ability to shape the destiny of our own city, to win the arguments for our values with people in Oxford and, if we maintain their trust, to put those values into practice. That includes, if needs be, spending the money proposed in the earmarked reserve, to defeat this outrageous proposal and to develop something much better to meet the challenges that Oxfordshire faces.

So Lord mayor and colleagues, we will face a choice today. For sure, there will be relatively minor disagreements about amendments to our budget, and that’s okay. But the bigger choice underlying our budget is this – are you content with the city as it is, or do you want to use all the tools at your disposal to make a difference? Are you willing to use the skills of the council’s workforce to bring in extra revenue and support the front line? Do you back us to build new homes, new communities, and offer hope to those who are currently desperate for somewhere to live? Are you angry about the inequality in the city, whether it’s in educational attainment, life chances, health or the crass reality of gaps in life expectancy? Because – and I make no apology for the origin of this quote – the point is not to interpret these things, the point is to change them. This is a budget of big, bold ambitions, a budget that shows a city council with the right values, and with a real sense of self-belief, can make a huge difference to those we serve. I ask for your support for that vision of the city council and of what we can do, together, to change our city for the better. I move the recommendations including those in the monitoring officer’s report.

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