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Barnet Liberal Democrats' response to the 2021-22 Council Budget

March 4, 2021 10:06 PM

Barnet Council met on 2 March 2021 to debate the Conservative adminstration's budget proposals for the upcoming financial year. Our Group Leader, Cllr Gabriel Rozenberg, gave this speech on behalf of our group, calling for a recovery budget driven by increased green investment in our roads and infrastructure.

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364 days ago we met, in person, in Hendon Town Hall, just weeks before everything was set to change forever.

In March 2020 this borough was facing a £37 million budget black hole. The Conservatives proposed to put up Band D Council tax by 3.99% a year (including Social Care Precept) for the next five years. But we in the Liberal Democrat group called for the borough to go further, and bring forward future council tax increases, to avoid a full-blown financial crisis.

Well, we didn't have a financial crisis - we had a health crisis instead. And as the dust settles, it's interesting to note that we are indeed putting up council tax by substantially more than previously planned. This year the increase, including Social Care Precept, will be 4.99% a year, an increase of almost £64 for the Band D homeowner. We are grateful to the Conservative Group for coming round to our suggestion eventually. Joking aside, this increase will be a challenging burden for Barnet's families to meet, and we welcome the increase in funding for the Local Council Tax Support Scheme for all those many households experiencing hardship.

Despite the increased Council Tax rate, the amount of income expected to be collected is actually some £1.3 million lower than was estimated a year ago. Furthermore, the net sum collected by business rates is also forecast to be £1.7 million lower than previously expected, as our SME base struggles with the effects of the Covid recession. And of course we are spending millions on battling the coronavirus itself.

This would normally add up to dire pressure on Barnet. But the pressures are for once offset by the power of central government. Austerity has been temporarily set aside, and the government has handed us more cash than we expected. An additional £10.2 million to tackle Covid costs; £5.2 million more from the Local Council Tax Support Grant; and various other additional benefits.

Our borough can enjoy a bit of a breather. But I repeat, Barnet hasn't done anything to earn this extra cash - it is a pure windfall from Rishi Sunak.

Moreover, his largesse is not cost-free. There is now a bewildering menu of government financing schemes for local authorities. They extend over fourteen different line items in Barnet's budget. Each of these funding mechanisms comes with strings attached, forcing Barnet to contort itself like a marionette. It gets worse: there is no long-term local government settlement and we are run on a year by year basis. Whitehall only handed down the key figures for the upcoming financial year in the week before Christmas. So while the papers we vote on tonight show budget data as far out as mid-2025, that's pretty much a mirage. The truth is that whelk stalls have better long term financial plans than we do.

So what are the risks? We highlight the following:

  • A structural reliance on parking income, which may never recover to pre-pandemic levels
  • A likely increase in homelessness, as landlords start to evict tenants who are out of work
  • A potential worsening of business rates as the economy stagnates
  • Question marks over the viability of plans for Brent Cross and other shopping hubs
  • Ripples from the effective bankruptcy of TfL: the price Barnet pays for Freedom passes is bound to rise
  • And of course we are not out of the woods on Covid-19.

Facing this uncertain outlook, the Conservatives' budget risks being a hostage to fortune. But in our budget amendments tonight the Liberal Democrats focus on ways that Barnet can position itself for a green and sustainable recovery.

The first amendment we propose will defend our much loved parks and open spaces from any risk of attack. I have no idea why the Conservatives have not struck out measure ENV12. When they do so they will be cheered by residents across Barnet, who love their local open spaces and will fight to protect them, against an administration that seems determined to ignore their wishes.

The capital part of the budget often gets overlooked. So our second proposal focuses on our most valuable capital asset: our Highways. Clean, liveable streets are crucial to the success of our borough. But year after year we are failing to invest sufficiently in our roads and pavements. As someone who has changed his main mode of transport in the past year to an e-bike, I feel every one of the potholes that pockmark our highways. The dire state of our roads is downplayed by a Conservative group who rarely leave their cars. But as ward councillors we all know the truth: the system for road repairs under the Network Recovery Plan is teeth-grindingly slow.

The analysis by the Liberal Democrats shows that at the current pace, the typical road in Barnet can expect to be overhauled once every 103 years. At a time of rock-bottom borrowing rates, the situation is absurd. We call for Barnet to double the pace at which it invests in our road network. We have set out how this could work and shown that the additional interest charge could easily be met by bringing forward green cost savings measures such as solar panels on commercial buildings.

At the core of our vision of improved roads is a network of cycle lanes, something rejected completely by the Tories. Mike Freer recently wrote to residents calling for Barnet's single new cycle lane to be replaced by a paint job - which directly contradicts his own government's policy. If Barnet Tories want to show that they are on the side of walking and cycling then they can support Amendment 3. But I won't hold my breath waiting.

One more comment: on Labour's proposed budget. There is much we welcome here, particularly the commitment to clean up the Welsh Harp reservoir which is long overdue. But we are perplexed by how they propose to pay for it: by slashing half a million pounds out of the compensation of senior council officers. The timing seems tactless to say the least. It comes after a year in which Barnet's officer team have been working under unprecedented circumstances to tackle a global pandemic. A Labour council that put this budget into effect would see its entire leadership team walk out the door. The Liberal Democrats appreciate the quality of Barnet's non-political leadership, and we cannot support this proposal.

We urge you to back the Liberal Democrats' amendments tonight to ensure we build back better and enjoy a green recovery in Barnet.