Last night we had our annual bunfight that is the Budget debate. It was a strange affair, with little offered by the LibDems. Instead they say smugly attacking the Conservatives. As a politician, I don't mind this. As a resident, this leaves me fuming. Who on earth is running the Borough if the LibDems are continuing to act as an Opposition party rather than a group that should have a positive track record to boast about after 22 years with their hands on the purse strings.
I'll cover the Budget in two posts as one matter caught my eye in particular and illustrates the LibDem Council's approach to their Budget perfectly. We caught the LibDems out using the interest from huge sums of Government money to lessen its own council tax increase. Conservative councillors discovered that the mystery savings which cut the increase from the controversial 4.9% to the 'benign' 3.4% has come from a variety of sources including the interest creamed off from the Building Schools for the Future funding for Stanley Park High School in Carshalton, and a surplus of council tax from new homes.
This follows the previous controversy when the Lib Dem Council consulted on a 4.9% projected council tax increase in December 2007. The current above inflation increase of 3.4% has been set by using additional money from sources termed in council-speak as "slippage" and the "buoyancy of the Council Tax base". We confronted the Lib Dem finance executive councillor for either not being up-front about this hidden surplus when official documents announced a 4.9% increase or for simply not knowing of its existence through incompetence. No answer was forthcoming.
During the debate the LibDem executive councillor for learning services confirmed that quarterly instalments of £2.056 million have been received by the Council - from the Department for Children, Schools and Families - totalling some £6.168 million. He also confirmed that projected earnings in interest were £150,000 for 2007/08. After considerable pressure from Conservatives over the last week, he agreed that all revenue in interest should be 'ring-fenced' to be used exclusively on the project to build the new Stanley Park School.
It is good news that they have reversed their policy under pressure to ensure that the considerable revenue in interest from the school grant will be used only for the benefit of the Stanley Park School. Using this money's interest to partially offset the council tax increase is just not acceptable. School children should not be short-changed because this Council can't control it's spending.
This does mean that the budget is now incorrect to the tune of £150,000 because the Lib Dems cannot cream it off anymore. How will they make up this shortfall? Maybe we can do a swap with parents' School Vouchers?