Money matters

Gavin Corbett asks if changes to the council budget-setting process have been over-sold.

My last blog about sex has become a best-seller (although I don’t think JK Rowling has much to fear by competition).  So , naturally, I wanted to perpetuate my new-found appetite for populism by blogging about the Council budget process.

Or, as my kids would say: “Not!”

Still, money matters.  The Council presides over an annual budget of around a billion pounds, with several hundreds of millions more on capital projects.  How we come to sensible conclusions on how it is spent is important.

Over the last five years, Greens have been deeply critical of the Budget process which left the Administration and each opposition party working in isolation until a day or so before decision day in February when each party would whip out its budget, like a rabbit from a hat, in the full knowledge that only the Administration’s budget was going to be passed.  So dismayed were the Greens at this ineffective use of Council staff time that most years our councillors sought, instead, to work with other parties to support whatever we thought was good.

So we were pleased that the Capital Coalition said it was going to revamp the budget process to make it more participative.  From now on, it would not be assumed that the Administration had a monopoly on good ideas and there would be much more engagement across parties in developing the budget. 

So far so good.  But how is it working out in practice?  Two years ago, as a parent activist in schools I took part in a budget process with Education officials which started in June so I know the process starts early.  This summer, as a councillor, I was three times invited to budget meetings, all of which were cancelled.  

So at the new Finance and Budget Committee (and I can never think of it as the F ‘n’ B Committee without thinking of Matt McGinn’s poem) yesterday (1 November) this was the first time the Committee (or the previous Finance and Resources Committee) had even mentioned the 2013-14 budget, far less looked at in detail.  That is less than 4 months before the Budget has to be agreed and only 5 months until the start of the financial year.  I asked several questions about work carried out to date, about key dates moving forward, and about the role of the new Budget sub-committee, and, in particular, how we were going to discharge its specific remit to improve public and partner participation in the Budget.

All I got back were some generalised assurances that a draft Budget would be published in mid November.  As the meeting went on it appeared that Budget sub-committee themes and dates had indeed been mooted but I, as an opposition spokesperson on Finance, had not been privy to them. Now, I don’t expect to share equally with Coalition members in access to information, but I think it is good practice to tell me about dates of meetings that I am expected to attend. 

I am going to be charitable and assume that this stumbling start is simply the birth-pangs of a new process.  But for a process which is sold as more transparent and participative it is not an auspicious beginning.