Horsham council ‘scaremongering’ over future finances

HORSHAM District Council has been accused of ‘exaggerating the financial situation’ and scaremongering the public into thinking things are worse than they really are.

As members discussed the Budget for 2012-13 at a full council meeting on Wednesday of last week, Liberal Democrat leader David Holmes (Horsham Park) said HDC was ‘like a rudderless ship, lurching from one disaster to the next’ and the figures in the budget report were misleading.

Leader of the council Ray Dawe (Con, Chantry), former cabinet member for efficiency and taxation, presented the budget to the council explaining that although the council had saved £7m in the last five years, much of the money the council gained in additional government grants in future years would be lost in reductions in other grants.

He said the current figures showed the deficit would increase year after year from £300,000 this financial year to £1.7m in 2015-16. If further savings or increased income were not found, council reserves would be depleted by a further £3.6m by that time.

But Liberal Democrat and Independent members were critical of his approach.

Dr Holmes said: “This council is like a rudderless ship. It lurches from one disaster to the next.

“In this last financial year we had the undetected million-pound overspend in operational services.

“This year we have proposals for evening and Sunday parking charges followed by an ill-considered plan to demolish Broadbridge Health Leisure Centre.”

Referring to the budget presentation, he said the figures were ‘misleading’ the public.

“I note that, on page 49 in the presentation to Scrutiny, much was made of the fact that this council spends £96 per person in the district and that to balance the budget this will have to be reduced by £20 to £75 a head.

“This suggests a cut of over 20 per cent and is very misleading. It could be seen as scaremongering - £96 a head is our net expenditure after allowing for income of £17m.

“Actual revenue expenditure per head is approximately £220. After this budget we need to cut our annual revenue expenditure of £30m by £1.7m, a cut of about 5.5 per cent.

“A 5.5 per cent adjustment should not be that difficult. We should not exaggerate the financial situation.In the presentation we have had tonight, reference is made to a 28 per cent cut in government grant.

“Yes, the grant has been reduced by 28 per cent, by £1.527m over two years, but we have been given an additional grant for freezing council tax and a New Homes Bonus (NHB) totalling £1.175m. Our income from government has not fallen by 28 per cent but by £352,000, 6.4 per cent.”

Mr Dawe agreed the NHB would be the main source of funding in the medium term future, where the Government would match council tax raised on every new home in the six years after it was built.

For houses built in 2011-12 the Government would pay the council £379,000 for the next six years and for the houses planned for 2012-13 the council expected to receive £390,000 for six years, equating to £3.5m to 2015-16, he said.

However Mr Dawe argued the future of the NHB was not certain.

He said: “We are to assume that any other money in the future (beyond six years) will come from the total government grant.

“Whatever we gain from the New Homes Bonus, we will lose in government grant. It will be offset by the reductions in other grants.”

In his presentation he told council that the government grant had decreased by 28 per cent in the past two years, but members criticised his approach to the figures.

Chairman of the Budget Review working group Leonard Crosbie (LDem, Trafalgar) said with all the houses approved to be built, Horsham district would gain from the Government’s plans.

“Whatever this Government does with the NHB, Horsham should be one of the main beneficiaries. I think an air of optimism should be injected into this debate,” he said.

There was also criticism over the council’s ongoing decision to keep council tax low over more than a decade.

Dr Holmes said: “This council’s financial problems are not due just to government cuts. Many of this council’s problems are of its own making.”

He said an extra one per cent - £1.35 on a Band D property - over 12 months ‘was not a large sum to pay if it helps retain essential services’.

George Cockman (Ind, Steyning) agreed, saying members should put politics aside in future. “We are now in a position where we are seeing the effect of not risking making small increases in council tax over the last 12 years and I regret that,” he said.

“When we do get the chance to look at council tax again, we should look at it less politically and more based on evidence.

“We all tend to make political decisions, but this is a plea that we look at the facts.”

Members agreed the budget before them, but accepted there would be challenges ahead.