Becoming a 21st Century Council

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By Cllr Keith Baker, Leader of Wokingham Borough Council

It is no secret that Wokingham Borough Council has to save almost £19million by March 2020.

In a recent Peer Review we were commended for being ‘ambitious and high achieving’ in many areas. One such ambitious initiative is our far reaching 21st Century Council programme which will make a significant contribution to our sound three-year savings plan to address the deficit. We’ll become a leaner, more efficient council costing significantly less to run.

This is a brave journey for us, but we are building from strong foundations. We will radically change the way we work; we will improve our services and reduce our costs.  But be assured, residents and customers will be at the heart of everything we do

Changing our approach and doing things differently is not an easy task.  The changes will mean that you should see availability and access to our services improve through digital channels; as well as swifter resolution of issues and queries. And, I have every faith that we can make the changes needed to ensure we are fit for purpose in the new world.

Despite the budget deficit, we’re investing in our IT, which in the longer term will make us more efficient and ultimately save us money in the longer term. Customers will have more choice how in how they wish to interact with us

By improving and integrating our technology better, customers and residents will be able to get what they need, find the information they want, make bookings, payments and complete more transactions remotely and online. And they will be able to do all this, at a time that is convenient to them, 24/7.

For those less confident with technology, other channels will continue to be available such as by telephone or by visiting our offices. However we will encourage those that can, to self-serve.

Our approach will be different. No longer will we have traditional council departments. Instead we will have customer-focussed teams some of which will be based in our communities closer to our residents. They will work even closer with the Police, NHS, town and parish councils and the voluntary and community sector.

They will be equipped to address a wider range of issues, relating to people and communities to environmental issues in a more connected and efficient way. We’re looking to improve and deal with your enquiries sooner or at first point when contacting us.

The 21ts Century Council Business Case which the executive agreed on September 29, focuses on the shape, structure and size of the organisation and how it would operate. But this is just one of 12 strands that would make savings. A further £9.7million would be met through various initiatives closer integration between health and social care; continuing to ensure best value for money from the council’s largest contracts; looking for further opportunities to share services with other councils and to raise and generate income such as through the council’s own companies and Wokingham town centre regeneration.

To learn about our difficult financial position and the budget challenges please join us at one of the budget engagement sessions taking place this month. We’ll be in Woodley, Twyford, Finchampstead, Lower Earley and Wokingham – all the details are on our website: http://news.wokingham.gov.uk. This is your chance to share with us your views on the principles and priorities that will guide how we spend your money to fund your services. It will also be an important forum to discuss the 21st Century Council Century Council programme.

So our journey has begun. We know it’s going to be challenging but we’re determined to make it a success and improve our services further on our limited funds.

Budget 2016/17

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By Cllr Keith Baker, Leader of Wokingham Borough Council

2016/17 and beyond is going to bring many challenges, and even tougher decisions than those we’ve faced before.

On December 17 we learnt the devastating news that the proposed finance settlement from central government would see a 50 per cent cut in the Council’s main grant compared to the 27 per cent average for unitary authorities; a sum of approximately £6.3million.

We’d been planning for a bad settlement, but it was far worse than predicted – therefore continuing our status as the lowest funded unitary authority in the country.

We’re certainly didn’t take it lying down. Since then, we’ve been fighting for a fairer settlement for our residents.  With the support of local MPs we made several representations to Ministers. As Leader of the Council I met with the Minister and John Redwood MP met with the Secretary of State.

And this week, (February 8), central government announced these proposals would go ahead as planned. However Ministers have listened to our concerns and have agreed a transitional grant for Wokingham Borough Council of £2.1million for 2016/17 and again in 2017/18. I am grateful for MP’s support.

“This transitional grant is temporary, and it will be cut after two years. It will allow us extra time to plan how we will deal with the future. However it makes no change to the extent of the cuts from central government over the four year period of the settlement.  Whilst the temporary transitional grant provides us with some breathing space, and time for a more considered approach to our savings, when it is removed in 2018/19, the gap in funding still has to be found – either by cuts to services or additional income or both.

Whilst this transitional grant is welcome, changes still need to happen.  The cut in our overall funding during the four years is still severe. By the end of 2019/20 we face almost impossible challenges as the council loses £20million and moves into a negative grant of £7million. By then the government ongoing grant will have been cut by 74 per cent, and residents will be paying 91 per cent of the costs of running services. The impact of inflation, and demographic changes like increased demand for adult social care, will make our challenge even more severe.

We are on the right path to secure our future. We will continue to be innovative but tough choices will be made as savings and extra income have to be found.

Funding from central government has always been biased towards deprivation. As a consequence, an area like ours, with low levels of deprivation, received little in terms of government grant.  As a result, the services we provide are almost exclusively funded by our council tax payers (80%).

So how did we receive the worse settlement in our history? This time around, central government changed the way it does its calculations and now includes council tax when arriving at the grant cut calculation.

The new settlement hits our residents three times over. Firstly they have to pay the largest contribution through council tax towards local services because of past poor settlements; then their significant contribution is used to calculate the grant reduction. Lastly government also presumes we will agree to the highest possible council tax rise for the next four years (2 per cent council tax, 2 per cent adult social care precept) when calculating future cuts in grants. If we don’t, the level of cuts will remain the same, and our financial challenge will be unmanageable as we have to make savings equivalent to the difference – all brought about by severe reductions on an already meagre grant allocation. We don’t wish to raise council tax levels but our hand is forced.

We’re being penalised for being efficient, self-sufficient and embracing a responsible approach to housing demand, because although currently we can plough this money back into services and regeneration, by 2018/19 it will be cut by at least a third and national consultation is already underway to consider its future.

Government is simply redistributing funding to areas of the country that already receive higher levels of grant than us. That’s not morally right. Why should we be penalised?

The council will continue to look at every aspect of the work it does. We will have to look at generating more income and moving some non-statutory services towards paying for themselves. We will also have to look at more joint working with our neighbours.

We will make the situation work, despite the difficulties, and continue to provide high-quality services at the lowest possible cost.

Our full budget proposals will be discussed at Council on February 18, which can be found on our website at: www.wokingham.gov.uk/council-and-meetings.