The leader of Leeds City Council has warned: austerity isn’t over, writes Richard Beecham.
Presenting plans for the authority’s 2020/21 budget, Coun Judith Blake told colleagues continued cuts from national government would mean the authority would have to make more than £28m in cuts to services in the next year.
The ruling Labour group proposed a council tax increase of 3.99 per cent, as well as savings of £28.4m.
It added that the contribution of business rates to the revenue charge is down £900,000 from where it was expected, due to an increase in rates relief. However, it added a grant of £2.7m from government would cover this.
It added an increase in the business rates levy of £200,000, as well as an extra contribution of £2.2m to the authority’s insurance reserve.
And, despite an additional increase of £1.1 of section 278 income (money charged from developers to improve roads), the level of homelessness reduction grant will increase by £300,000.
It also made allowances for an increase in additional rough sleepers and rapid rehousing funding of £350,000, while the children and families directorate will receive £1.6m of additional strengthening families grant in 2020/21.
All 21 proposed amendments were ultimately voted down by the authority, with the original Labour plan getting the green light from members.
Coun Blake said that a devolution deal was needed for Leeds as soon as possible, as otherwise the district could miss out on large amounts of funding and responsibility enjoyed by areas such as Manchester and Liverpool.
But the opposition Conservatives group leader, Coun Andrew Carter (Cons, Calverley & Farsley), claimed most of the cuts were due to council debt repayments, adding the authority had made poor decisions on devolution in the past.
As part of the authority’s 2020/21 budget, the ruling Labour group proposed a council tax increase of 3.99 per cent, as well as savings of £28.4m.
Coun Judith Blake told a meeting of Leeds City Council:
“The uncertainty and disorganisation of government at a national level continues. Promises are made, but who knows what will be delivered.
“Our funding settlement wasn’t received until the last minute before the Christmas break. The final settlement only passed through the house of commons two days ago.
“I have news: austerity for this council is not over.
“Sicne 2010, the cumulative total of the cuts to our funding is an astonishing £1.7bn – that means the tories have taken £1.7bn out of services for people in Leeds.
“Even though on paper, it looks like our budget is increasing by £9m – don’t let the Conservatives fool you.
“The failure of the grant to cover increased cuts and pressures, it means this council needs to find even more savings. These cuts continue to push the burden onto Leeds council tax payers.
“Despite the increase, council tax in Leeds remains lower compared to elsewhere. Our Labour administration has consistently delivered a balanced budget in the face of Tory cuts.
“Since 2010 we have reduced our workforce without compulsory redundancies. From April we will pay a minimum wage of 9.36 per hour, 6p an hour over the real living wage.”
She added the city’s 56 children’s centres have remained open, adding the city had bucked the national trend for child obesity.
Coun Blake also announced the authority would ‘double’ its woodland creation plans and plant six million trees.
“Let’s talk about action to reverse austerity – to pay back to local government what is owed. As a Labour council, we will continue to fight and do everything we can to protect front-line services and our budget does just that.
“We are proud to have the guts to stand up and fight for what is ours.”
Responding, Coun Carter said:
“As we have come to expect from the administration, nothing that goes wrong is ever their fault, and everything that goes right is down to them.
“This year we have to find £28.4m of savings, the debt has increased to such a degree that virtually all that saving is to pay that increased debt incurred by the Labour administration – £27.6m.
“This so-called £28.4m in cuts from government, is in fact £800,000 of cuts from government and £27.6m of increased debt repayments incurred by this council.”
On devolution he added that he believed a devolution deal would be announced in the government’s spring budget. He said:
“The government have made it very clear that they want to announce a deal.
“On this subject, the deal on offer to Leeds is the same deal that was offered by George Osborne in 2015.
“All (the One Yorkshire plan) did was blow smoke in the face of a deal that was already on the table.
“I hope the funding we need to get a mass transit system up and running – we need to finally break the gridlock in the city. We need an effective relationship with government. A new approach is desperately needed if we are to realise our ambitions and our potential.”
He added that the funding shortfall for flood defences was ‘at the top of our list’, as “the risk of flooding is here to stay”, warning “disaster after disaster, year after year” if nothing is done. Coun Carter concluded:
“It’s only six weeks since the people of this country decisively rejected socialism. Socialism is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly. That’s Marx – not Karl, Groucho.”
Green Party group leader David Blackburn (Green, Farnley & Wortley) said:
“This council is under-funded, central government needs to do something dramatic to address it. We are asking council tax payers to pay far too much for it.
“I say to the government in their budget, please, please have some sense and redress some of the balance. Our taxpayers have been taxed enough – they do not need another one percent on their council tax.”
The leader of the Leeds Liberal Democrats group Coun Stewart Golton called for more to be done on devolution, adding:
“Despite the greater Leeds economy having just as much potential as that of Manchester, because we do not have an elected mayor, we have our business rates retention reduced from 75 to 50 per cent while Mayor Burnham keeps 100 per cent.
“He enjoys hundreds of millions of pounds in guaranteed transport spending, whilst we are sent to join the Transforming Cities Fund queue.”
Coun Golton outlined proposed amendments to help build two new rail stations in Methley and Woodside Quarry, as well as plans for an extra one percent precept on council tax to go towards a climate fund.
Presenting his own group’s proposed budget amendments, Morley Borough Independents leader Coun Robert Finnigan said:
“This council has become a leaner organisation – there is no further fat to cut. It will have to stop doing some of the things it currently does to make ends meet.
“That would be a grim future for the communities we represent. We welcome the increase in the minimum wage and the council’s commitment to do better than this.
“Successive governments have all avoided confronting this ongoing problem to support people living longer with more complex needs.
“The administration’s budget is a fair one – whatever differences we have relate to a tiny percentage of the overall budget.”
He spoke of the need for further council housing stock, adding: “Right to buy legislation needs to be abandoned. Properties are being purchased for speculative gains. We end up paying exorbitant levels of housing benefit to private landlords who are the main beneficiaries of right to buy legislation.”
Leader of the Garforth and Swillington independents group, Coun Mark Dobson said:
“We entered an entirely new reality in 2010. In an extremely restrictive position, we do have choices. If we don’t act collectively, we will be letting down the residents of Leeds.
“We need that money – we have come through another phase of flooding. This time we have got away with it by the skin of our teeth, but this time the money has to be delivered.”