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Barnet councillors approve budget at heated meeting

Barnet Council’s annual budget meeting was fraught with conflict as councillors voted on spending cuts and tax rises.

Labour and Conservative councillors attempted to poke holes in each other’s assessments of the borough’s financial position during the full council meeting last night (Tuesday 27th).

The 2024/25 budget includes £39m of total savings –comprising over £23m of spending “efficiencies” and cut costs across all departments and £15.5m of income generation and new external funding – while raising council tax by 4.98%.

Council leader Barry Rawlings opened the budget debate with a gloomy view of the financial landscape. He said calling this year a “difficult budget year” would be a “gross understatement”.

The Labour councillor said local government became the “fourth emergency service” during the pandemic and was the “delivery vehicle” for the things central government wanted to achieve “without being given enough funds to do it”.

Cllr Rawlings declared central government was responsible for this year being “the hardest ever” and put it down to a “growing tsunami of incompetence and poor decisions” at Westminster.

Listing some of the challenges, he described former prime minister Liz Truss’s mini budget in autumn 2022 as having “disastrous” consequences as it raised inflation and interest rates “higher than it had to”.

He added that London borough council resources were a “fifth lower” than in 2010, yet there were now 800,000 more Londonders living here. He said pretending this didn’t happen showed “financial illiteracy” adding this was a “common” affliction of the “benches opposite”.

Council tax in Barnet will be rising by a total of 4.98% in 2024/25, comprising a 2.98% increase in the core rate, plus another 2% rise in the precept used to fund adult social care. The local authority is also planning rent increases of 7.7% for all council-owned homes.

The council leader boasted that the council tax increase was lower than neighbouring boroughs – by 0.01%.

Cllr Rawlings also mentioned some of the funding and investment due to take place in the borough and said there would be £97million spent over the next five years to “fix roads and pavements”, which would be more than had “ever” been invested.

He said weekly bin collections would be maintained, along with free community skip services to tackle fly-tipping, and 511 new council homes were already delivered or going through planning.

In response opposition leader Daniel Thomas said Barnet’s overall council tax rate was lower than other boroughs because “Labour inherited lower council tax from the Conservatives in 2022”.

Cllr Thomas claimed that the council leader himself had admitted the borough’s finances “were in good shape” at the time Labour won control two years ago.

He said: “Fast forward just two years and the council is £20m over budget, which gives me no confidence that Labour’s budget will actually be implemented.”

The Conservative group leader said he was expecting another year of overspend with residents “fleeced” by “higher charges and fees”.

Cllr Thomas criticised Paul Edwards, cabinet member for adult social care, for not speaking at the meeting given that adult social care was a reason for the heavy overspend on the current year’s budget.

He also criticised the council’s decision to get rid of the policy and resources committee responsible for setting the budget and chaired by the leader of the council. This change happened when the authority went from a committee system under the Conservatives to a cabinet system under Labour.

The former Tory council leader continued: “Barnet Labour will blame everyone but themselves for the mess they’ve created, they used to blame inflation but now it’s falling and now they blame the government.

“A rise in demand for services is yet another excuse because it’s been increasing for years and that’s been predicted.”

Cllr Thomas said under the Conservative group’s proposals council tax would be increased by “just 1%” and local taxpayers would be “better off by a collective £4.2m” as a result.

He said the funding for this would partially come from changing the locality of back office and administrative functions to “a cheaper part of the country” and claimed this would save 25% of payroll costs.

Cllr Thomas ended his speech by saying Labour knew they wouldn’t be in power “to fix the mess” after 2026 when the next local election would be held.

Speaking on the Conservatives’ proposed alternative budget, Cllr Rawlings said it was “unachievable”, adding the staff cuts proposed would “decimate” enforcement, community safety, planning and housing.

He also said the plan to relocate and outsource staff to save money was not feasible.

Councillors from both sides also engaged a fierce debate on the respective arguments over the budget.

Alan Schneiderman, cabinet member for environment and climate change, called the Conservative amendments a “fantasy alternative budget” and said it wouldn’t last as long as Liz Truss, “let alone a lettuce”.

Cllr Schneiderman went on to state the “good work” the Labour council had delivered in the borough and said they’d planted around 1,200 trees in the last year, “smashing” their target, while they were working to bring back the full food waste scheme the Conservatives had previously scrapped.

Pauline Coakley Webb, cabinet member for family friendly Barnet, also claimed the Tories provided “no details” on where or how they would cut a proposed £3m from non-statutory services.

But Conservative councillor Lucy Wakeley said Labour needed to look at the £100,000 spent on its citizens assembly, comprising a group of local residents selected to deliberate on public questions.

The Edgware councillor said the council “still” hadn’t implemented any of the policies suggested.

Following the heated discussion, the Conservative budget proposals were voted down by 32 votes to 18, while the same numbers then voted in favour of Labour’s budget.

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