Delighted to be able to move a new financial strategy for Folkestone & Hythe District Council tonight that, after huge hard work and sacrifice by Officers, Staff, Councillors and others is now predicting an entirely balanced budget for 2024-25 (no finding from the general reserve, at all) and a sub £100k deficit for the next year.
The previous administration gifted us a strategy that predicted a £4.5m loss in each year and Council bankruptcy by year 3. This was a fact the Conservative Group leader was "spitting blood" to be reminded of. Truth hurts, but shouting about it doesn't make it go away.
As I say above, and say again, that's due to the work and sacrifice of Council Officers and staff, and includes a significant proportion of saving from a "transformation" process (read: voluntary redundancy) to streamline especially management structures, but also into other staffing. That's always hard. I've been involved for months in listening to, scrutinising, questioning, pushing back, agreeing, making counter suggestions and helping revise the budget and strategy. But the real hard work, and sacrifice, is that of the professional team at the Council, and I'm the first to admit it. I didn't write it. I get to present it.
No-one (I've met) ever stood for election to make people redundant. But by doing this process now, and getting those savings in place, we can give certainty to all staff going forward, and rebuild. No workplace is entirely settled when people are leaving. That process is drawing to a close now. We can all move on, and build, together, with huge thanks to everyone who worked, and continues to work, for our Council delivering services for local people.
So: in February we will see an actually balanced budget for our Council proposed, where we spend no more than we earn. Not a huge number of Councils will say that, but it gives something great to build from. We also won't be cutting into mainline services, or introducing new charges (like on street parking charges in Folkestone, Sandgate, Hythe and elsewhere) where proposals were made, but we've decided we couldn't accept the pain they will cause to residents and businesses.
And in this financial year, before April, we'll get down the Princes Parade Barricade. The hoarding will go, but it'll be kept for future use. Sadly removing kilometres of 3m high hoarding and thousands of blocks comes at a price, and we'll have to pay it, but it's going. We told the previous administration that PP was a money pit hole and to stop digging, but they burrowed away on a ruiniously financially risky project. It would have lost the Council £10m+, guaranteed, on top of the other reasons to hate it It's over. We want our vista back, and, by April, we should have them.
The local Conservatives left us barricades and bankrupcy, and in a year both have been torn down.
Is everything good news? Of course not. Every Council deals with new and exciting "challenges" every week. But is the financial direction good? Yeah. I think so.
But I can't be delighted about everything.
In June, our Council agreed that we would aim for a new way of running Folkestone & Hythe District Council, the committee system, from May 2024.
And I still think that is possible. It was always going to be hard, but has been done by other Councils.
We've done a huge amount of the groundwork on building the structure of that new system. But there were recently expressed views by (mainly the Green group) that there wasn't some detail and clarity in place now, and to deliver by May there wouldnt be. I was optimistic we could deliver by this May.
We'd made a commitment to residents, Councillors and ourselves, and when I commit, I want to deliver on it.
The Labour group shared that optimism. The Green group were however concerned it could go wrong. They moved the following motion tonight:
"The majority of Councillors in the chamber are fully supportive of the move to a committee system and away from a cabinet system. The working group has made great progress and has been well supported by officers and external consultants.
"The principles and processes of a committee system are not in question, the problem is the deadline of May 2024 and the lack of time for members to become familiar with the mechanisms and detailed operations of the committee system.
"I would therefore like to put forward the following motion - This council believes that the current work on this important project should continue with the view of introducing the changes in May 2025. The proposed governance changes will be presented to the Audit and Governance Committee and Full Council for approval. This will allow more time for all councillors to be familiar with, and understand, the changes involved in the move to a committee system of governance."
And they won (16-11-1 I think), so the change to a new system will take place in 2025, not 2024.
I voted against delay, and am disappointed. However, I am reassured by the ongoing commitment to the much more inclusive committee system, albeit not this year. We'll refine, re-explain, and retrain on the plans.
It's positive that we can have a Council where we debate disagreements in open, even where Leader and Deputy Leader hold different, but valid, views. I don't think Jim and I have ever actually disagreed in Council in the last year, but we can, and just did, and debate and our administration is healthier for that.
We will still get to a committee system. We will still get more Councillors involved in more of the important council decisions. But not right now.