Thursday, November 04, 2010

LibDems Say "Budgeting is Not An Exact Science"

At the meeting of the Executive of Sutton Council on Monday, Cllr Graham Tope spoke about the business plan for the controversial £8.5million Sutton Life Centre. As expected, the business plan was, to quote one Sutton insider, "optimistic". Bearing in mind this is only to break even, Sutton taxpayers have every reason to remain worried about the burden that they will have to carry to hide the embarrassment of the Liberal Democrat administration.

Cllr Tope explained that "budgeting is not an exact science", something that will come as news to business people up and down the country who realise that this is the polar opposite of the truth. Homeopathy is not an exact science. Budgeting, however, is a detailed appraisal of the future using case studies, market research, and an assessment of how best to use a certain amount of capital and income. Assumptions can be kept to a bare minimum by taking a pragmatic, not dogmatic view, something that does not come easily to the administration in Sutton.

The original budget for 2010-11 required £131,000 of taxpayers' money to keep the fledgling Life Centre open. The latest update shows that they will have spent £190,000 over and above this, a whopping 145% over budget. This is largely put down to an 'underachievement of income', a euphemism if ever there was one. One-off costs covered the remaining overspend. One of these costs was £40,000 for a website. Apart from the fact that this is an extraordinary amount to be spending in addition to the £208,000 Sutton Council spent on their main site, why is this an overspend? It is not beyond the wit of man to realise that a decent website would be needed to market the Centre. Why was this not included in the original budget? It is oversights like this that show why the Council believes that budgeting is not an exact science. You can't just put a wet finger in the air before undertaking a massive project like this. The business plan has more space given over to 'One Planet Living' than spreadsheets. There is nothing exact about 'One Planet Living' It really doesn't matter how many planets you need to live on if they are all bankrupt.

Since the original concept came about, the Council won a Government grant of £4million. Following this, the scheme doubled in size to fit this extra money, rather than the sensible approach of keeping this vaguely within reason. The builders were already booked to start digging the day after the council meeting which approved the decision. After even the most intransigent fan of the Centre realised that most schools realised that parents did a better job of teaching their children how to behave and so failed to book places, other activities have been brought into the Centre to justify its existence.
  • Ex-offenders will come along to be told not to re offend (could the money have not been used for Job Clubs and drug rehabilitation?)
  • Council meetings and other community meetings will take place at the Centre (taking important income away from schools and other community facilities)
  • A Life Clinic will be set up (No, I don't know either?!)
  • Some School Governors' training will be held here (threatening the future of the Glastonbury Centre that has already been saved from imminent closure once)
Nick Clegg opened the centre at an event which was mainly attended by the senior management
of Sutton Council and Liberal Democrat councillors. Half a dozen children from nearby Glenthorne School came along as guinea pigs. It would be interesting to know quite how many thousands of pounds of lost productivity it took to have the great and the good at this corporate backslapping exercise.

The Sutton Life Centre is being held up as an example of the Big Society as part of Sutton Council's status as a 'Big Society Vanguard Council'. People are struggling to understand what the Big Society concept actually is and this project pushes that understanding further away from the truth. Big Society should be about people taking back areas from the state to be under their own control. It is about people not buildings. The Sutton Life Centre is anathema to the Big Society, instead standing as a paternalistic, patronising monolith that illustrates the real centralising views of Sutton's Liberal Democrats; Power coming down from Whitehall is fine, as long as it stops at the Civic Offices, where politicians know best. That is not localism. That is not freeing individuals. That is just bringing the nanny state closer to home.

Have a look and judge for yourself if the £40k website is worth it and the £8.5million (10% of council tax collected in the entire Borough for a year) was well spent


Anonymous said...

Complete disgrace.

Viv said...

Completely right. I object to the Sutton Lib Dems hijacking the term Big Society for things which have nothing to do with it.

The trouble with Lib Dems is that they have no core beliefs but are just a rag-bag of people who can't decide whether they are socialists or capitalists. Basically just busybodies who can't manage effectively and don't want to take responsibility. May the dire state of Sutton be a warning against allowing them too much power in national government.

Of course, we get the governments we vote for, though I cannot imagine how this shocking party was re-elected locally. Cleggmania was a temporary but very costly hysteria.

The Rt Hon David Cameron MP said...

Guys, it's "Big Society" not "Big Spend".


Barry Russell said...

Paul, you and I have both been vociferous opponents of this project that had no defined operational business plan nor a practical likelihood of attracting the external revenue required to support the operational costs.

Now that the Centre is up and running the ruling Liberal Democrat Group are being forced to face the financial reality that it is going to incur the substantial revenue deficits they were warned of. One disturbing consequence of this has been the recent trend to use the Centre for Council sponsored meetings despite it not having the necessary parking facilities, purely to mitigate its loses.

For example, school governors were recently invited to an important evening meeting. The venue chosen was the Life Centre despite its lack of parking. On behalf of my governor colleagues I enquired as to whether any arrangements had been made (e.g. with the proprietor of the public house opposite) the answer was that Tesco’s car park was ten minutes walk away. Whilst I am unaware as to whether Tesco have given their consent for this, I am very sure that I am not going to ask governors to undertake a ten minute walk after dark.

Last week I had a conversation with an Officer who works in the Education Department, who was very concerned that important meetings will now be poorly attended because of this issue. It seems highly likely that the same will be true of other meetings held at the Centre.

An authority which professes to support inclusive policies and be a supporter of “The Big Society” should not act in a manner which in effect excludes many.