Council budget: strategy and accountancy

Green councillor Gavin Corbett says budgets need to balance big picture ideas with real open-ness about the future of specific services.

At the council’s finance committee yesterday the council agreed to launch a consultation on the budget strategy over the next 4 years. Faced with a gap of over £100 million in funding over that period I think that is reasonable, indeed vital, to get public views on how best to bridge that gap. And it’s right that this should look at big themes like prevention of crises or better sharing of services or raising more income, whether through new methods like a tourist tax or Scottish Government funding formula for councils.

However, at the same time, there is clearly public interest in what the budget specifically for next year will look like. That is a much more detailed debate and it’s where recent headlines about school budget cuts, music services, common building repairs, public toilets and many others have come from.

The trouble is that I, as an opposition councillor, have not seen these more detailed proposals. So there is a real danger that a 2 month consultation about budgets becomes entirely dominated by concerns about proposals that only councillors in the ruling SNP/Labour groups have sight of. That is no way to make billion pound decisions.

So that is why I secured cross-party backing yesterday to require council officers to publish specific options for the 19-20 budget as soon as possible. I originally thought that could be after the Scottish Government publishes its own draft budget in mid-late November. But it is now clear that it’ll have to be far earlier. So, in effect, the council will have a twin track process: hearing ideas on what might take us right through to 2023; and, at the same time taking soundings on more detailed and costed proposals for next year. If that means some are ruled out, well and good, and if it means some need more work, so be it.

Getting budgets to balance is as much about the strategy as the accountancy. It’s important to do both well.