Tim's Council Diary: The Star Chambers

6 Oct 2023
A Starry Night by Van Gogh (photo TP from London exhibition)

It's not quite true that there isn't a discussion I have at F&HDC that doesn't start with "the Conservatives left us a medium term projected shortfall of £18 million over the next four years and we need to fix that", but I do say it a LOT.

Because it's true.

That's what the Medium Term Financial Strategy on which the last last district council budget was based said was the position, and that we would run out of money in year three at that rate.

https://folkestone-hythe.moderngov.co.uk/documents/s42176/1.%20Draft%20MTFS%20Cabinet%20Paper%20202324%20to%20202627.pdf [chart at 1.8]

That needs fixing, and we will do so.

It won't be without pain, or difficult decisions, but I hope and believe we can put together and new MTFS and a budget to the new Council in February that massively closes that deficit, and doesn't project a "running out" point over the next four years.

It's a long way from "I have a dream", but without stable finances, we can't deliver anything. There have been a host of Councils across the country that have got into massive financial problems in the last few months: we are not going to be one of them if I can help it.

So - the Star Chambers. That's the selected name for the process of locking me, Jim, Chief Exec, the S151 Officer, Directors and key finance staff in the Middleburg Room for 2 days while we look line by line at a 5,000 line budget with every Cabinet member and the team they work with to discuss the savings they propose to their budgets (and savings they DON'T propose to their budgets). There were no thumbscrews or bright lights to shine in people's eyes, but detailed conversations, discussions of plans, and "deep dive" into cost savings and potential income increases. There were, in my memory, no stars involved AT ALL.

Due to the positive attitude of all involved, I think we have a "shape" for how we will get much closer to a balanced budget, but there remain a lot of discussions to have. The changes are all defined where possible to protect front-line services, and ensure that residents get at least the same service, and preferably a better one, from their Council as they do now. Some savings are easier:

  • don't fill vacant positions;
  • remove budgets that don;t get spent;
  • shrink budgets that aren't crucial.

Some savings will also come from the Council's Transformation programme (as discussed at Full Council in September), but the scale of those is yet to be finalised as staff consultations are ongoing. And some will come from the "difficult decisions": charging more for some things, spending less on some others,

Through November in particular, we want all Councillors to look at the proosed "difficult decisions": together. The options on those will be publishied pretty soon and will be going to Scrutiny committee amongst other places, and Cabinet members questioned on them, their need and the benefits and consequences of each of them. There is no option to duck all the hard options. But we will look at all options: together.

Larry Ngan and Lib Dem Campaigners on The Leas, Folkestone

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Larry Ngan, Daniel and Fry with "Build More Houses" t-shirt on The Leas, Folkestone

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