Letter To Merton's Council Leader

Conservative leader on the council budget

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Councillor Debbie Shears (right) has written the following letter to Council leader Stephen Alambritis:

"Dear Stephen

Budget Options

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your administration's budget proposals.

As you will appreciate, Conservative members have only had sight of these Budget papers since October 18, in contrast to Cabinet Members who have been considering a range of options for several weeks already.

Due to the timing of the publication of the Budget Options pack prior to half term, some Members have not yet had sufficient time fully to absorb the implications of the various proposals for the areas and residents they represent.

We do however have some initial comments, questions and observations to make on the Budget options produced by this administration prior to the participation by Conservative Members in the full scrutiny process. We would ask that these are considered by Cabinet at its meeting on November 7 and that this letter is entered into the public record.

Firstly, we are pleased that the Leader understands the financial constraints currently facing residents in our borough and that his Cabinet is recommending a Council Tax freeze in 2012/13, once again taking advantage of the Coalition Government’s successful Council Tax freeze initiative which resulted in no increase in average Council Tax bills across the country this year.

Conservative Members, along with residents, fully understand the state of the country’s finances left by the previous Government and everyone has a role to play in reducing our country's debt. However, we want to see the Council prioritise options which deliver better value for money through increasing efficiency in the Council's back office rather than cutting the frontline services on which so many residents rely.

Prior to this document being considered by Scrutiny, there is clearly the need for greater clarification on a number of the proposals outlined in the papers if they are taken forward by Cabinet on November 7.

One immediate point on which we would welcome clarification is the apparent discrepancy between the £44 million of savings you state in your letter that the administration still needs to find and the target savings in the next three financial years (2012/13, 2013/14 and 2014/15) stated on page 6 of the Budget papers, which total £34.115 million. We would appreciate a clear explanation as to which of these target savings figures is the correct one, as this is potentially misleading not only to Members but also to residents and businesses in Merton.

Some of the individual Budget proposals also require more information in order to explain how the saving could be achieved and the impact it would have on service users as well as staffing levels within the Council. Within the proposed Corporate Services savings for example, there is a constant use of oblique coding. Likewise, there is a lack of detail provided to Members about the Level 2 Libraries proposals for establishment of a Community Trust.

If we are to ensure full and comprehensive scrutiny of the proposals put forward by the administration then officers will need to provide full and timely information to the panels and to the Commission and I very much hope that you will instruct them to do this. Similarly, in the spirit of openness, we would request that a list of those savings rejected by officers and Cabinet members be provided to Members of each scrutiny panel in advance of the first round of meetings in order to allow more informed judgements to be made about the full range of option s available.

In line with our wish to prioritise options which deliver better value for money through increasing efficiency, Conservative Members would propose that all those options which constitute purely back office efficiencies without any impact on front line services should be considered by the first round of scrutiny panels and the Commission. Those savings which gain clear agreement in the first round of Scrutiny should then be enacted as soon as possible during this current financial year rather than waiting until April to commence implementation. We could envisage this applying for example to a number of the Parking Services proposals relating to improved management of CEO performance and sickness.

As such, it would be beneficial if, prior to the first round of Scrutiny, officers can have pulled out all those options which are purely back office efficiencies so that Members can scrutinise them and recommend they are taken as savings mid year. We will then need to understand what the cumulative impact would be of these savings on the Budget gap.

Conservative Members are clearly disappointed that the potential efficiency savings we proposed back in March 2011 do not seem to have been taken forward thus far as part of the Budget process and that the unanimous resolution by Full Council to report back to Cabinet and Scrutiny before 30th September 2011 has not occurred. We would therefore make the following suggestions of further efficiency savings for your Cabinet to consider taking forward in the coming months:

  • Re-engineering the Council's performance management system to ensure it provides value for residents, particularly in light of the significantly reduced list from the Government of performance targets that councils are now required to measure.
  • Using web-based translation services wherever possible to reduce costs.
  • Identifying opportunities to provide value added options in services such as the bulky waste collection service.
  • Combining the roles of Lead Member for Education and Lead Member for Children’s Services in line with the national guidance for councils from the Department for Education that the Lead Member for Children’s Services is appointed ‘for the purposes of discharging the education and children's social services function of the local authority'.

Conservative Members have serious concerns that the overall thrust of the administration’s Budget proposals will impact most severely on the older and younger residents in our borough, targeting the services and activities they value greatly.

We are also unclear how these Budget proposals fit with the set of strategic priorities and principles underpinning the development of the Business Plan 2012-15 that were agreed by Full Council in July 2011. Of immediate concern therefore are a number of proposals which pose a significant threat to the safety of residents; to protection of the vulnerable; to the cleanliness of the local environment; and to services that enhance the quality of life of residents.

Merton Conservative Group will of course continue to consider your proposals carefully, and to talk to local residents about the plans. We will be playing our full part in the scrutiny of the Budget over the months to come.

In the meantime, we await your administration’s final decisions on what to send forward to Scrutiny as part of the proper Budget setting process."

November 4, 2011