Barnet’s balanced budget ‘no thanks to Westminster’

The Labour administration at Hendon Town Hall launched a scathing attack on the way government has been funding local councils, reports Grace Howarth, Local Democracy Reporter

Hendon Town Hall

Cabinet members in Barnet have criticised the government’s response to serious financial pressures facing local councils.

Following the news last week that Barnet Council had found a way to balance its 2024/25 budget, which at one point last year had a gap of £45m, council leader Barry Rawlings assured a cabinet meeting at Hendon Town Hall on Tuesday (6th) that residents remained central to its long-term plans.

He went on to describe an “invest to save” approach the council would be taking, with £97million being put forward over the next five years to improve roads and pavements.

Ross Houston, cabinet member for homes and regeneration, mentioned the purchase of homes at Colindale Gardens last year as another example of investing to save. The council plan to let 249 homes at affordable rates, he said, was reducing the cost and demand of temporary accommodation.

But Cllr Rawlings slammed the approach from Westminster to funding councils and said: “The government has run out of steam, run out of ideas, doesn’t want anybody else to have a Section 114 notice [effective bankruptcy] before a general election. They’re basically saying use your reserves, sell your assets like there’s no tomorrow.”

While Cllr Rawlings was pleased to say the council had balanced its budget for next year without reducing reserves, to tackle the in-year overspend of £17m the council had needed to do so.

Despite this, he said: “Our aim is not to use reserves, our aim is to be ambitious and optimistic, to look to the future believing that in Barnet we have a far better future if we continue to invest properly and continue to transform.

“In a way we’re turning our back on government advice, but that advice is just short-term party politicking, it’s just not worth considering.”

Pauline Coakley-Webb, cabinet member for family-friendly Barnet, mentioned the recent pressures on children’s services, one of the contributing factors to to council’s in-year overspend, and the bid to bring services in-house.

She said: “In order to respond to what is a statutory requirement for children in this borough, our belief is we need to invest to save.”

Although the rate of children in need in Barnet was below England’s average, figures from the Department of Education showed 1,907 children were assessed as ‘at risk’ in the borough as of March 2023, up from 1,842 in 2022.

Cllr Coakley-Webb said: “It’s not that we’ve necessarily got higher numbers but we have some really vulnerable young people […] private profiteering organisations are syphoning off money into hedge funds, and making a profit out of our vulnerable young people.”

To reduce this, Cllr Coakley-Webb supported investing to bring care services “back into the borough”, proclaiming this move would have both “immediate and long-term benefits”. 

Alison Moore, cabinet member for health and wellbeing, drew attention to the public health grant from government and said it only saw a 1.65% rise. She said: “It certainly doesn’t meet the needs of an increasingly diverse borough with an ageing population.”

Clr Moore added that health and wellbeing services were “hobbled” by this but commended the council for putting together a budget that makes the “best of what we do have”.

Paul Edwards, cabinet member for adult social care, stressed the pressure on this sector. But he said: “Of the 33 London boroughs, 30 of them are spending money beyond what they’ve got in their budget, to meet their statutory duties to provide services.”

Cllr Edwards added: “Since 2019 Barnet has had hospital discharges that are 30% higher than the London average and we currently have the highest hospital discharge rate coming into the local community for adult social care to address in London.

“We have a huge demand to try and get hospital users back at home. We’ve also seen a growth in the number of people needing support and care at home due to the demographic and population change here in Barnet.”

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