Amid some last-minute fireworks across the chamber, Harrogate Borough Councillors voted overwhelmingly to adopt the draft budget for the upcoming 2019/20 financial year last week.
Like other local authorities across the country, Harrogate’s budget is set against a challenging background of nearly ten years of reduced Government funding.
It was something that cabinet member for resources, enterprise and economic development Graham Swift addressed early on at the budget meeting, saying this year’s budget came off the back of the council’s revenue grants being reduced by £8.1m since 2010, with council making £8.8m of cost savings in that time.
“The result of that is we’re grateful for the work that’s been done by officers to continue to chip away at service costs... and I believe there’s been a great demonstration of that (in the draft budget),” Coun Swift said.
But what does that mean for the local ratepayer? Local democracy reporter Lachlan Leeming looks at some of the key talking points to come from the plan for the upcoming financial year.
One of the first things ratepayers are likely to notice will be a 2.99 per cent rise in district council tax, which is roughly in line with inflation.
The rise will see a band D household pay an extra £6.99 over the course of the year.
For some perspective, northern neighbours Scarborough District Council are also proposing a 2.99 per cent rise, while Hambleton District Council will instead implement a blanket £5 increase.
Coun Swift said at the meeting that the budget “recognises that we are reliant upon our ratepayers” given the lack of funding received from Government.
He said that council expects to generate about £15m in income from rates, a growth of nearly £500,000 from last year. Ratepayers will also have to deal with a 4.99 per cent rise in North Yorkshire County Council tax.
One of the contentious items included in the budget is a series of service reviews, aimed at identifying where efficiencies and cost reductions can be made, across a variety of sectors.
In a fiery exchange, Liberal Democrat leader Pat Marsh that the budget was “underpinned by staff cuts” and took aim at the reviews, saying: “We have no confidence that these reviews will not impact on the cleanliness of our streets, the quality of our parks and gardens, the way our refuse collection is undertaken, and the service we give to the bereaved”.
Coun Swift responded: “This council has a track record of efficiency, of cost reduction, improvement, in maintaining our council tax at a very low rate...we’ve kept it at a bare minimum around inflation levels and I believe we’re in a strong position to do that in future years too,” he said.
“(During scrutiny) at no point did anyone present an idea...or anything they want to put into the budget. We sit here today and yet again instead of coming up with interesting, provocative thought-provoking ideas that we can listen to and perhaps even adopt, you’ve missed that opportunity and said we don’t want to know and turned your heads.”
Budget papers show a proposal to reduce expenditure in the parks and environmental services sector by £268k in 2019/20.
Among the proposals are waste and street cleansing operational reviews, with budget documents showing the reviews may result in potential redundancies.
The waste review is predicted to produce £53,710 of savings in 2019/20, with the drop in cost budgets on the cutting of two vehicles and crews.
The street cleansing review is slated to produce savings of £85,020 over the two financial years, with savings predicted to come from reduced staffing and cost cutting.
Other major sources of savings are proposed to come from a parks and open spaces operational review in 2020/21 aimed at saving £168k.
Bereavement services such as burials and cremations are set to go up by 3.5 per cent in the upcoming financial year, in a rise that Coun Marsh described as “inflation-busting”.
Council reports on the item have said the rise reflect recent investment costs and ensure that HBC prices are reflective of other local prices from nearby authorities.
An operational review across the entire bereavement services sector is budgeted to save £20k across 2019/20.
Live streaming of funeral services, introduced last year, is expected to generate £1.5k per annum.
The council is predicting a much stronger financial performance from the Turkish Baths this year, after they were closed for longer than expected for refurbishment in 2018.
The closure led to the baths underperforming against its budget targets last year; however this was expected to improve in 2020/21, with a council report on its performance since reopening showing there had been a 25 per cent increase in takings, with products sales up by 90 per cent and treatments up by 30 per cent compared to pre-refurbishment.
Recent developments have seen the council approve a decision to apply for an alcohol licence for the baths in order to increase their product offering.
The illegal dumping of rubbish and other environmental crimes will be more difficult to get away with in the upcoming year, with a new fulltime post set to be created to undertake environmental crime enforcement. The new role is expected to come at a net cost of £35,950, with a £36,780 salary expected against a -£830 in vacancy provision.
The recommendation arises following a comprehensive report to the council’s management board and subsequent support by the Strategic Management Group.
An underwater eyeball keeping a watchful sight on swimmers?
While no funds have been committed yet, the introduction of new pool safety technology is something set to be explored this year.
One item looked at is underwater cameras would be able to detect when swimmers were in trouble, with the plan to have it introduced at the new pool in Ripon and retrofitted at other sites.
The new technology is likely to lead to a reduced amount of lifeguard staffing required at pools around the district, with a saving of £20,000 forecast in the 2020/21 indicative budget.
A council report on the matter says that the number of lifeguards on site would be finalised following the appropriate risk assessment.