Consulting on a 28p spin

Cllr David Longstaff is not impressed by Barnet Labour’s budget plans

Cllr David Longstaff, Conservative councillor for Barnet Vale ward on Barnet Council
Cllr David Longstaff

Barnet Council’s budget for 2024/25 will be agreed this month. The council’s officers and senior management team have worked hard to set a balanced budget that meets the needs of residents whilst addressing the budget gap of £46.195m for 2024/25.

Since taking control of the council in May 2022, the Labour Administration has behaved like some kids let loose in a sweet shop. In this scenario, the sweet shop is the council’s financial reserves and Labour’s pet projects. Unsurprisingly, when the expenditure trounced the income, Labour immediately blamed the Conservatives.

Labour made many pledges before the May 2022 local elections. The number one pledge being the 1% refund of the 2022/23 council tax increase (or ‘council tax hike’ as Labour enjoyed calling it).

Labour boasted at Annual Council in May 2022 that they would make the refund in the autumn, telling cheering, delirious supporters in the packed council chamber that Labour always keeps its pledges. The refund was scrapped*.

Despite promising to be careful with the council’s finances, Labour immediately committed circa £400k to re-joining the Local Government Association. The Citizens’ Assembly was embarked upon without setting a budget.

Money was no object and the cost of the first year was circa £100k. There have been plenty of other projects and new posts to fill at the council with commensurate salaries, including a ‘transformation director’ and a ‘political adviser for the cabinet’ in the new governance system.

One of Labour’s suggestions to address the budget gap is to use Community Infrastructure Levy funds to pay for the day-to-day salaries and running of the council. I queried the legality of this approach at a budget scrutiny meeting in November.

Can money specifically levied for infrastructure projects be used for general revenue expenditure? Labour is convinced it can, but legal have yet to provide a response. I can only deduce the lack of response means this is not clear cut and no one is willing to answer the question that will leave a bigger hole in the budget. This short term approach kicks important decisions down the road and destroys potential infrastructure projects across Barnet.

Labour’s latest broken pledge is ‘keeping council tax increases well below the legal maximum’. On page eight of this year’s Budget Consultation document, the following is written, “The Government confirmed in previous Spending Rounds that local authorities would be able to increase general Council Tax by up to 3.00% for 2024/25. However, we are only proposing to increase Council Tax by 2.98% for 2024/25.”

The difference between the government’s legally allowed maximum increase of 3% and the Labour Administration’s ‘we are only proposing’ increase, is 0.02%. The proposed 2.98% increase represents 99.33% of the legal maximum. Hardly ‘well below’ the legal maximum.

This reduction generates a saving of 28p per year for a Band D property. 28p per year isn’t the magnanimous gesture implied in the consultation document.

David Longstaff is a Conservative councillor for Barnet Vale ward.

*Editor’s note: the Labour administration claims it provided the rebate by not increasing council tax by the full amount allowed last year.

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