This week HDC will approve its budget for 2015/16. It all looks very impressive; there is no increase in Council Tax, services are still being delivered and the Council is reviewing activities to ensure that money is well spent. The officers responsible are to be praised for the work that they have done.
What is not evident is that our funding from the Government changed a few years ago. Instead of handing HDC a grant based on what it thinks we need, the Government introduced the idea of “Spending Power”. This includes New Homes Bonus, which is based on how many houses are built, and Business Rate Retention, which depends on the health of our local economy.
As we are all aware, houses are springing up all around Horsham District, so HDC has received a large New Homes Bonus pay-out. For 2015/16, Horsham has an increase in Spending Power of 2.9 per cent, the fourth best in England.
Some of this money is being used to replace the grant, and support daily activities, but the rest is being squirrelled away alongside all the other reserves. These include S106 funds for community facilities and open spaces, and commuted sums for affordable housing.
It is prudent to keep some money in reserves so that the Council can always continue to operate. But the Council is not a bank. The funds from S106 and New Homes Bonus should be used to deliver infrastructure and projects that the community needs, and to help grow the local economy. We have been pressing the Tories for a strategy to use the New Homes Bonus for the last two years. We are still waiting!
There is a problem; HDC has axed so many staff jobs, that there are not enough people left to deliver projects, nor to make sure that promised community facilities are delivered. Projects are delayed and officers even tell the public that they have no money to do anything. Yet HDC has the funding; Horsham is a wealthy District and there are no excuses for not keeping it in good order. Residents have started to notice neglect and are asking why things are not better cared for.
This is particularly difficult in the town, where the Neighbourhood Councils and District Councillors are aware of problems, but have to go to HDC to ask for things to be done. This has been unsatisfactory for a long time and has been even worse in recent years, despite the existence of a Cabinet Member ostensibly responsible for the Town. Councillors elected to represent the town should have an equal right to help steer the future of the town.
And there is another problem; the Minister for Local Government, Eric Pickles, has noted that councils are increasing their reserves, have surplus assets and, in some cases, are failing to collect all their income. If he remains in charge after the election, we can be sure that he will reduce council funding further, as he thinks councils will not need it.
If we are not to lose out, we should make sure that we deliver those projects, in consultation with the community, and we should deliver them fast.
Frances Haigh is leader of the Lib Dem group on Horsham District Council.