2017-18 Budget Consultation Response
We note that the working assumption is that the cap on general council tax uplift remains at 1.9% for 2017-18. We also note that a further 2% budget uplift is included in the budget to be ring-fenced to support the rising cost of Adult Social Care. However, it is not clear in the consultation documentation where this additional funding is represented in the figures. The supporting paperwork appears to be identical to the paperwork approved at last year’s budget – to include all the same savings profiles contained in the MTFS at that time.
Grants and Local Government Act (1972) facilities
We are not able to see where the ~£4m of grants, including the Rural Services Support Grant, awarded immediately after approval of the 2016-17 budget and currently held in reserves, are being proposed to be spent. It is disappointing that with 6 months’ notice the interim has not been used to make suggestions on how this grant funding might support service delivery into rural areas in time for such suggestions to be consulted upon here.
A significant proportion of last year’s consultation respondents were amenable to paying more through their Council Tax to secure or improve services important to them at a local level: albeit that they had reservations regarding how such services would be agreed and their levels assured. This enthusiasm seems well matched to the facility provided by Section 137 of the 1972 Local Government Act: it is disappointing to be unable to find any assessment in the consultation of the parish funding which could be available under the Section 137 provisions for the support of agreed services.
This facility is a funding source that we have brought to officers’ attention in previous years, and we would strongly encourage a serious consideration of this facility and the opportunity it presents to enable and encourage closer co-operative working amongst parishes. While central government continues to reduce the amount of national taxation redistributed through the core grants mechanisms, it is perverse to continue to ignore this source of local funding and the improved local government co-operation it could encourage.
Based on the August 2016 population figures for the county we have around 150,000 electors. At the 2016-17 S137 rate of £7.42 per elector, this gives a maximum of some £1.1m of parish funding which could be available for the support of non-statutory services delivered either cooperatively at parish level or cost effectively at county level, whichever is most appropriate. The opportunity has been missed to use 2016-17 to begin the conversation with parishes on the service mix and spread which may be appropriate for such funding support. We urge the administration to make a commitment now to begin this dialogue immediately, so as to explore the possibilities and acquire the consensus needed to make use of this source of funding in 2018-19.
Additional Savings: context and proposals
A savings programme has already been proposed which omits certain funding sources, mentioned above, and which also is behind in its delivery in some areas and overambitious or untargeted in others. IOC has maintained for a number of years that the budget for Herefordshire is, in reality, not balanced; and that savings targets in departments are sufficiently unclear in their detail to create the concern that they are used merely to give the appearance of a balanced budget.
Far from being motivational for staff, unrealistic or unattributed savings targets give the impression that a budget is never truly something on which delivery is expected. Neither is it encouraging for particular areas of the council’s business repeatedly to be required to make additional in-year savings to bail out those parts of the council’s business which have been assigned unachievable savings at the start of the year: a culture of perennial overspend, and/or perennial plundering in various parts of the council’s business, is corrosive and ultimately undermines the necessity for culture and behaviour change.
Elsewhere these in-year unbudgeted savings risk impacting on investment programmes essential to the enablement of new ways of working when these become delayed and cut to compensate in-year pressures. This also risks preventing or delaying the service re-engineering necessary to deliver savings. Projects like Digital Channels and the improvement of the council’s website are critical to the delivery of service and behaviour change. Additional savings and increased income could come from the council focussing on information handling and knowledge management for the county, its partners and the voluntary and third sector organisations seen as core to new service models across all departments and stakeholder webs.
Is the council compliant with its own income and charging guidelines, adopted in 2011/12? What priority is being given to creating the understanding of service delivery costs which would enable charging tariffs to be developed for parishes and individual residents to consider? It’s hardly surprising that people/parishes are reluctant to commission works which come with unspecified or open-ended liability: re-painting of road markings, traffic regulation orders, gulley sucking and drain clearance, residents’ parking zones, replacement local/road signage are a few examples of work which could be funded locally if the costs were properly understood.
Other proposals include:
- Using the council tax collection system to enable individuals and/or larger groups of properties to buy additional services and spread their payments.
- Offering a chargeable green/garden waste collection service in urban areas for re-cycling/composting (rather than going to landfill), particularly in the south of the county close to the green waste facility just over the Gloucestershire border.
- Deploying ubiquitous technology and evolving social business networks to change the way in which services are made available (assuming sufficient all-county broadband coverage), for example:
- Real time GPS on public transport linked to mobile phone apps, showing the exact location of buses (which could be linked to smart messaging signs at bus stops and the opportunity for income from advertising that reacts to and targets users in its Bluetooth bubbles) would negate the need for published bus route timetables. GPS would enable smaller operators to enter the market and to upload their travel route – or even for them to deliver ‘doorstep services’ in rural areas.
- UBER offers a new model for urban minicabs/taxis: the technology could also enable people, as part of the ‘Choose how you move’ programme, to register to provide flexible taxi services in rural areas where reduced bus services are expensive and inflexible. The UBER model would enable local people known in their own communities to be paid for transport services as if they were Community Transport drivers.
Further savings could be made from a more joined-up view of how we use the ‘assets’ the council already has at its disposal.
- Library and Customer Service centres are the ideal points at which to base signposting and wellbeing hubs for Adults’ and Children’s Wellbeing, and for our healthcare partners. Significant investment is required in these directorates and partner organisations to deliver preventative programmes and behaviour change. Customer Service & Library staff members are good sources of knowledge and data, and are well networked in their local communities. They already have the skills and knowledge to match well with the CWB/ASC messaging and would also be able to deal with the wide range of issues and problems which might involve other advice areas and partner services.
- Cultural centres (theatres/museums) can act similarly as hubs for such service provision and signposting, with advisors doubling up as front desk for these services.
- Most Town Councils already run a reception desk/enquiry point, the cost of which could be shared with Customer Services and a wellbeing hub, offering the potential for space sharing, savings in operating costs and additional revenue from the repurposing of existing office space.
The implementation of advice and signposting services can be flexibly deployed to match the locality need and best options for the physical access points in each community. These Centres can be hubs for Neighbourhood Networks of Community Champions – providing support and contact services in their immediate localities – from good neighbourliness through to regular shopping, prescription or other care services.
All parishes have been challenged to provide these neighbour volunteers, but such support networks will need to include income-generating services in order to be stable and viable. The council should be looking to provide payment or support to enable some of the services to be provided. It is not realistic to expect that these support activities will be sustainable without some element of funding – although this can come in part from the beneficiary through personal budgets etc.
Treating the provision and marketing of excellent and attractive specialist respite care services should be an important part of the council’s investment in prevention and pipeline management. Making those services available for part/full payment for non-qualifying families enables the cost to be spread across the year or shared amongst family members, with collection through the council tax system.
Additional Parish Service Delivery
There needs to be fully co-ordinated effort to enable parish dialogue on this matter. Not all of the options offered in Section 4 of the questionnaire seem suitable for parish level delivery.
Activities suitable for wholesale parish devolution would appear to include:
- Maintaining communal green spaces (parks, playgrounds, sports pitches)
- Grass and hedge cutting
- Litter and dog fouling enforcement
- Good Neighbour schemes
Activities which would involve some level of parish action, but which would also require continued county council involvements would appear to include:
- Road/footpath maintenance
- Libraries, museums and leisure facilities
- Customer contact & advice
- Winter services (gritting, clearing roads/pathways)
- Helping out in emergencies
Herefordshire Council should return the ownership of the city and market town car parks to these parishes to create income-generating assets to contribute to the cost of taking on the above services. This would be appropriate since there is a direct correlation between visitor numbers to these urban centres, use of services, and car park usage. If section 137 monies were not to be utilised to spread service delivery costs amongst locality parishes, then return of the car parks to the urban parishes they serve would ensure that the parish carrying their cost would have income derived from visitors, thus ensuring that the entire costs are not borne solely by the residents of the parish.
Activities for which we believe it would be difficult for most parishes to deliver effective action due to the complicated nature of the services involved:
- Respite and Day Care
- Bus Service
- Providing activities for babies and pre-school children
The gaps that open up in Herefordshire’s social structure cannot be expected to be plugged solely with volunteers. The council’s own Joint Strategic Needs Assessment shows that ~34% of local residents already volunteer on a regular basis: with the percentage of the elderly, infirm, and children in the county, 34% must be close to saturation point for volunteering.
The council could, and should, be providing more support to voluntary and third sector organisations, and to have a policy to look to place contracts for care and support work with local charity-based businesses so that the funding remains focussed on service delivery and not on shareholder profits. Encouraging local employers to implement volunteering programmes and to support local charities and projects with the time their staff donate would also help to expand the voluntary sector into local business, and to extend and focus social responsibility initiatives within the county.
Attracting New Business
The focus should be on building on the county’s strengths, on recognising what’s special and different about Herefordshire and aligning all the council’s resources to maximise the benefits these differences bring. Herefordshire is an attractive location for people who want to balance quality of life with business.
The visitor economy needs focussed support. Budget hotels for business and pleasure should be provided throughout the county so that people can afford to visit and to stay. Business parks should be invested in to be brought forward in all the market towns. No large-scale housing development should be allowed to come forward without also providing local employment sites.
Other considerations and proposals
The Economic Master Plan for the county should balance emphasis across the city, the market towns and rural areas. Broadband should be implemented to provide excellent upload and download speed in all areas to enable small businesses to operate in village locations and for the growth of the homeworking economy. The creative industries – including IT, computer programming and gaming -should be encouraged to relocate to the county. However the emphasis should be on helping existing businesses to expand while remaining here in Herefordshire.
Our AONBs and the River Wye SAC should be treated with care and sympathy as regards both development and the growth of industrial forms of agriculture. The rivers should be properly strategized as assets and access to them and care of them should be a priority.
Investment in the maintenance of existing road infrastructure should be the priority with the emphasis being on footpath and cycleway development in the rural areas to safely and sustainably link hamlets to villages and villages to towns. Cycle-tracks and bridleways on former railway routes should be instated and the towpath of the Hereford and Gloucester Canal should be re-instated ahead of the canal sections to create the movement route for people to begin to use this asset and to increase visibility of and commitment to the strategic project.
A light rail/maglev/monorail link from Hereford Station to the Enterprise Zone should be committed to in advance of road projects, and alongside a light tram system in the city. Railtrack and Network Rail should be engaged with and encouraged to re-instate the halts and request stops at villages along the railway lines running through the county, thereby encouraging and enabling development along these transport links from the east, southwest and north.
High Schools in the market towns should be encouraged to provide access to out of hours training facilities in half terms and holidays to businesses and link to the NMITE university project in the city to provide satellite resources and training portals to augment university facilities and to strengthen links to the local business community.
Priorities should include:
- Bringing forward employment sites in the market towns, and enabling road infrastructure, e.g. at Leominster, Ledbury and Bromyard, to serve these sites.
- Developing light rail and tram systems in the city, along with the extension and connection of the cycle and footpath networks throughout the county.
- Enabling pay car parks at schools to generate revenue in holiday periods.
- Extending the electric car charging point network and supporting new car pool/club schemes in towns and villages.
- Investing in GPS bus services, and a ‘bus pass with benefits’ scheme to encourage use of buses by under- 65s and to generate revenue from business offers and advertising. Investment in, or franchising of, smart signage/advertising at community message boards, hubs and bus stops.
- Providing free Wi-Fi zones in all the town centres – for council and parish notification or messaging and revenue from local business advertising.
- October 2016