A REPORT FROM THE CABINET MEMBER FOR FINANCE AND HOUSING, COUNCILLOR O’BRIEN IS ATTACHED.
Councillor O’Brien, Cabinet Member for Finance & Housing attended the meeting to present this item, however, it was assumed that all members of the committee had read the report and the following questions and comments were made:
Councillor Harris asked why the libraries are reported as making a loss, when the numbers were so reduced and why is there a forecast overspend at the gallery and museum. Councillor Harris stated this showed a lack of control.
Councillor O’Brien explained that the gallery and museum had an unrealistic savings target as they were expected to generate more income. The libraries are now fewer in number and are better placed to serve the community. They are expected to make savings in the future.
Councillor Walker raised concerns about the central library as this has lost two thirds of its floor space and the area used for exhibitions is often closed to set up or take down exhibits. Has this brought in the international tourists members believed it would. The Cultural Quarter has twenty four bars in it.
Councillor Harris supported this point, stating the venue had a lot of potential and asked if a change in the team running it was needed, bringing in someone with more expertise.
Councillor O’Brien stated that when Tony Trehy had previously presented initiatives to the committee, there has been a lot of progress, including Bury Town of Culture, Victoria Wood statue and exhibit, etc. and we need to take the initiative and build on these. We need a different niche that places like Manchester and Salford.
Councillor Jones raised concerns about unrealistic targets and that the level of reserves had dropped again.
Councillor O’Brien pointed out that we were in the last year of a three year cycle of £32m cuts, on top of the £67m that had already taken place. This is compounded with the national picture of uncertainty, and pressure on Adult Social Care and Childrens’ budgets. Therefore, £4m shortfall is a relatively small amount, which will further reduce to £3.5m next year and although it gave him no pleasure in reporting this, it had to be considered along with issues like fair funding for the borough and increased pressures on fewer staff. He also pointed out that we have more in general reserves than we had in 2010, which better protects the Council from any unexpected shocks to the system.
Councillor Jones disagreed and stated that there was not enough transformation. He pointed out that a £47k increase in bank charges showed that the organisation was not well run. This totalled to £0.5m over a five year period. If the Council invested in improvements it would not pay as much. He agreed that there are unforeseen costs in Adults and Childrens’ services, but there are other services such as libraries reducing from twelve to four and did this result in a reduction in staffing or are the same people running fewer libraries.
Councillor O’Brien confirmed that the savings from the libraries was mainly due to a reduction in staffing. He also pointed out the transformation of the Council was not finalised yet, but the Strategic Commissioning Board has been set up to oversee progress. Councillor O’Brien highlighted a number of initiatives to make savings, including working with the CCG to avoid duplication; increase in business start-ups; greater scrutiny of delivery of proposals by senior officers; planning over the next three years to be better able to adapt to challenges; and freeing up earmarked reserves which are no longer needed. However, he confirmed that there is still a lot of work to do.
Councillor Caserta asked why there was going to be joint financing of the Council and the CCG.
Councillor O’Brien confirmed that the two organisation have shared objectives. Both organisations need each other to make transformation work.
Councillor Caserta asked why the Council’s budgets was risked by the £8.7m debt and £2m loss from the CCG being brought in to the two organisations. Why was the risk split 50:50 when places like Rochdale had 70:30 shared risk?
Councillor O’Brien stated that it was an ongoing, shared risk for the benefit of the people of Bury.
Mike Woodhead stated the CCG had broken even on budgets over the last five years, although this year they needed additional support. The share of risk is based on how much each organisation brings in, hence different agreements in places like Rochdale. Bury’s agreement was made at Cabinet in March 2019 and sets out the risks and benefits.
Councillor Jones noted underspend / carry over of £900k refurbishment monies for the market and asked why this had happened.
Councillor O’Brien explained that undertaking such work is not unusual and it was important to engage with the market traders.
Councillor Jones asked what had been achieved by the Executive Director of Economic Growth, as a lot had been promised but nothing seemed to have been delivered, examples of Prestwich and Radcliffe initiatives were given. A question was also asked as to why Radcliffe was not part of the future high street fund bid.
Councillor O’Brien confirmed that there had been successes, such as the new bus station in Radcliffe, new Lidl, and the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ – the market. Initiatives had to be planned strategically, which is why it was felt Prestwich, and not Radcliffe, be part of the future high street fund bid.
Councillor Walker asked if consideration had been given to merging some back office services, e.g. Legal Services, with other authorities.
Councillor O’Brien stated that benchmarking had shown Bury to be the most efficient and lean, therefore unlikely to get much benefit from co-working with other authorities at this time.
Mike Woodhead also pointed out that the creation of the Corporate Core with the Council and CCG would bring about further, internal efficiencies.
Councillor Caserta raised concerns about the comment of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ as it was not clear what benefits this was having for the Council or the community.
Councillor Caserta raised concerns about Table 11 where surpluses of over £4m for Council Tax and Business Rates were higher than the combined figure of just over £2m reported last year. Were the figures last year wrong / hidden last time and was the increase in Council Tax, blamed on austerity, justified?
Mike Woodhead and Lisa Kitto explained that this is due to different assumptions being made by people responsible for this. Therefore, last year’s figures were correct based on the assumptions made at the time.
The report was noted.