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Budget Q&A with York council leader
This live event has finished
- City of York council leader James Alexander joins The Press at 3pm to answer your questions.
- He'll talk about the council's budget plans for the next two years ahead of crunch February meeting.
- Council must save £21 million over two years.
- Tweet your questions at @yorkpress with hashtag #presscyc
Enjoyed answering questions at @yorkpress on the impact of Gov cuts. This is the inside of The Press #presscyc http://t.co/fKcdvpGc— @jmalexander1982 29 January 2013
@izaakww @theyorkeruk Yes. Regional structures would help. Loss of RDas and Gov offices has hindered Yorkshire's access to EU cash #presscyc— @jmalexander1982 29 January 2013
Thanks for joining us today, Coun Alexander.
I want to see a York with a growing economy, one where businesses can expand and locate. We want to ensure we have reductions in unemployment and that people are in a position to look after themselves. We want to invest in jobs and growth, protect the most vulnerable and continue to develop a modern and efficient organisation.
In terms of economic growth in the north, options are mainly Manchester, Leeds and York. York contributes £40m extra a year to Whitehall than we get back in business rates. In Leeds, this is £60m. We are not as small as sometimes we think.
At the same time, we wish to reduce poverty to insure nobody is left behind from Government reforms in benefits. Depite less money, if we don't do this, nobody else will.
"Tough job, but that is what I and my Labour colleagues are here to do. I want York to be proud of its heritage and ambitious for our future."
Finally, when will residents be able to see the council's budget plans? And what sort of York do you hope we will have in terms of services and economic growth by the end of 2014/15?
"West Somerset realised they were no longer viable as a council and sought help from the Local Government Association. Advice was given to begin merger talks with surrounding councils. However the Government stepped in said this would not be supported and instead they wish the council to become a virtual council. This will be a council which does not deliver any services, but instead councillors meet to sign contracts for companies or other councils.
"In my opinion, this makes local democracy a sham as it does not matter who wins control of the council in such a situation - the contracts are already signed and there are a lack of finances to make a difference.
"York is pursuing shared services with a number of different councils including Wakefield and North Yorkshire County Council. We have also set up a trading company to sell services to other organisations.
"I am not in a position to speak for Selby but the model they have gone for is to outsource everything into one company. The staff they actually employ numbers 14 (less than the number of councillors). They are reducing this to 12 and the chief executive is going part time. I worry about the impact of this on local democracy and I can foresee extreme financial difficulties in the coming years. Selby and councils like them need government funding. This is one of the reasons why Selby is also increasing council tax this year.
"More and more councils will face bankruptcy and I suspect this will occur in 2015/16 when many will be hit with the paying-back of two council tax freezes. The Government has pursued a buy now, pay later option for council services.
"I have expressed this view to national politicans and the reaction I receive is one of that I am right, but that action is not going to be taken to resolve the situation. I believe this will increase the cost to the taxpayer as the government will have to take charge of collapsed councils.
"In York, we are therefore taking tough decisions now and investing for the future to insure York is not amongst this list of teetering councils."
West Somerset Council faces bankruptcy, Selby Council and North Yorkshire County Council are looking at sharing more services, Hambleton and Richmondshire have tried merging services. What is the future for councils in North Yorkshire and further afield? Do you feel some are in danger of collapse or becoming bankrupt?
"Depends what you mean by council facilities. Residents would expect us at a time of financial difficulty to consider all options and all have been considered. There are no plans for any libraries, children's centres or leisure centre closures in 2013/14 or 2014/15. But all have been considered. Some councils have already been forced into a situation of doing this. North Yorkshire County Council is an example with regards to library closures."
Is there a chance we could see proposals for specific council facilities to close in this year's budget?
PRESS NOTE: Apologies for the delay - slight technical issue...
"The saving will need achieving in the area of garden waste collections, but we are looking at options as to how this is achieved. You will have seen neighbouring Selby are going to charge £26 a year for these collections and Sheffield have pursued something similar. We will be consulting on options.
"It is a tough one as this is a service not all residents use. For example, some residents who don't have gardens but have relatives who require care services can say 'why are we giving free collections for garden waste to residents with gardens, when I don't have one? And yet my relative needs care services'. It is a sad matter of priorities at a time of experiencing a 30% cut in Government funding."
The possibility of charging for green waste collections was in last year's budget. Is this going to happen?
"The independent Fairness Commission said that ward committee funding (localised pots of money to be spent on discretionary services) was a good thing to have in good times. The country is not in good economic times, and if it is a choice between, for example, care services, as just mentioned, and ward committee funding, we would support care services.
"The commission recommended full removal. We went with a cut as we could see some community groups rely on this funding. Under the previous administration, I felt ward committees were increasingly being used to pay for core services. We did not feel this was right, therefore we ensured any reductions in ward committee funding went towards core services. I hope one day we can be in a financial position to increase these pots once again."
Couldn't some frontline services have been protected if ward committees had been maintained? Haven't powers being taken away from local residents because of this?
"As I have mentioned before, there is increasing demand for care services and, despite increasing funding in this area by £1.5m through the 54p a week council tax rise, the demand is outstripping the resources that we have. Therefore we had to move to a more targeted approach by moving the criteria for the service from moderate to substantial. This was not easy and there was debate amongst Labour councillors before doing this. However, we have to in all our services target the most needy as we are not in a position to afford universal services. The vast majority of local authorities in the region and nationally are also at substantial in terms of eligibility criteria. In the last three years, we have supported an extra 1,100 people in their own homes using telecare and community equipment."
Many people in York fear they won't receive the care which they did previously because of service cuts. With such large savings having to be made, how are you going to protect the city's most vulnerable people?
@gmartin @cityofyork We are increasing funding to our social fund as a safety net for people effected by all Gov benefit changes #presscyc— @jmalexander1982 29 January 2013
"Hi John, long time no speak - or type. Ministers such as Vince Cable and Nick Boles have praised the Economic Infrastructure Fund and Nick Clegg has recently admitted that funding for infrastructure should not have been cut so soon after the general election. This has wasted some time in going for growth. For example if there was still some of this funding in place, more unlocking of land sites could have gone ahead helping developments. The Economic Infrastructure Fund is being used to contribute to government funding for better buses, new park and rides and schemes to help York's economy. The Government has also changed the funding regime for councils in that we will now in York keep 25p our of every £1m of new business rates created. Therefore without critical infrastructure funding to help an environment for ecnomic growth, we will not get new business rates and the city goes into decline. We believe in jobs and growth. Other councils have also started to set up similar funds. Arts Barge is controversial but if £25k went to another arts organisation, for example York Museums Trust, I don't think anyone would have raised such concern. We believe in helping our arts and heritage sector to continue to attract visitors to York and create jobs in the creative sector. Moreover, tourism jobs quite often depend on these attractions."
#presscyc What are you doing to ensure people don't lose their homes over Council Tax Benefit slashing? @jmalexander1982 @CityofYork— @gmartin 29 January 2013
John Reeves has asked whether the Economic Infrastructure Fund set up in last year's budget can be justified in times of austerity. Money from this fund is being used to support projects which, while popular, are not considered vital to York's economy in some quarters, such as the Arts Barge. What's your response to this?
"This is why I am answering these questions. People are not aware of what 30% cuts mean. It is impossible to deliver all services and all services the way we always have with such large funding reductions from Government. For example West Somerset council has gone bankrupt and others will follow. I do not believe York will because 60% of income comes from council tax. Most other councils are circa 30%.
"We are going to issue information on funding reductions with council tax bills, despite the Government removing the requirement for us to do so. The next edition of Your Voice will include information on the budget. I also tweet about some of the impacts. You can always email on firstname.lastname@example.org."
There was a lot of public concern last year about cuts to frontline services, such as bins being removed and the closure of Beckfield Lane waste recycling centre. Does the council need to work harder to get its message across about why cuts like this are deemed necessary?
"The Government thinks it is to boost tourism and business. This is why they have awarded us money towards this in the autumn statement. This was the super connected cities 2 bid. this will allow us to be even more of a hub for tourism, on which many York jobs depend. Moreover it will help with encouraging more app developments which are now big buiness - further increasing jobs. Why can't York have a city centre wi-fi? We need to have some confidence as a city."
@jmalexander the removal of lights on the riverside path between Scarborough bridge & Leeman Rd needs looking into #presscyc— @_stevedunn 29 January 2013
Andrew Parkes asks if free city-centre wi-fi is necessary when cuts to services are having to be made?
"Because we are setting another two year budget and so we are discussing proposals for 2014/15 as well as the 2013/14 budget debated last year."
@PaulSHealey @yorkpress Wait and see Paul! #presscyc— @jmalexander1982 29 January 2013
@yorkpress #presscyc 12/13 Social Service increases were £2m out of £8.133 hardly largely..... Probably similar next year.— @PaulSHealey 29 January 2013
Press reader Mike Longhurst wants to know why we are having another budget debate this year when you set a two-year budget this time last year? Aren't things already decided for 2013/14?
"We set our budget in February last year as part of a two year budget. We will be doing so again. After debate amongst Labour councillors, we felt 2% was enough. The cap the Government brought in for a referendum was announced after we announced our council tax rise. The cost of a referendum would be circa £300k and so we would also need to factor this into any council tax rise. In essence residents woul have to pay to hold the referendum. I think it is a bit rich for the Government to say we need a referendum on council tax. where was our referendum on benefit changes or on the Chancellor's budget (pasty tax etc)?"
Why not just propose a council tax rise of 3 per cent and have a referendum, as would be needed, so residents can have their say?
"In 2010/11 the Government offered a freeze grant that would be given to councils to freeze council tax in the first year. This grant was for each year for four years. This gives councils time to plan for when this grant is no longer given. I supported this scheme. Some councils would make up this shortfall in budget in 2015/16 by using reserves, some will increase council tax by a higher amount and some will cut services. In 2008 our reserves were at £11m. Each year the previous administration dwindled these reserves to £6m when I became council leader. This is the recommended minimum. therefore to fund the freeze in 2015/16 we will have to either raise tax by a higher amount or make more cuts.
"Last year the Government offered a similar freeze grant but for one year only. Therefore the cuts this year would have been £2m more than we are doing or we would have had to increase council tax by 5%. We thought this was the wrong thing to do. Therefore we took the tough decision to increase council tax by 54p a week to increase the elderly care budget by £1.5m and looked after children budget by £0.5m. This year the Government has offered a similar grant but for two years. Therefore this would mean double the rise or cut in 2015/16 than we already have to deal with. Therefore we are increasing council tax by 38p a week and dedicating all of this money to care services. These actions have saved the council from circa £4m of additional cuts or council taxpayers from even larger future increases.
"We announced the 2% rise this year in February last year. In October, David Cameron announced the 2% cap - he must have been watching..."
@Gillivor @yorkpress That isn't possible, but we should be as efficient as possible. We have reduced management costs by 40% #presscyc— @jmalexander1982 29 January 2013
@yorkpress How can cyc make savings without losing services? #presscyc— @Gillivor 29 January 2013
You've previously said you don't intend to accept a Government grant to freeze council tax in 2013/14. Is that still your intention? And if so, why?
"Have answered on twitter but funding reductions mean we had to look at where our bins were placed to ensure they are in the right locations. We couldn't afford to continue to collect underused bins. Evidence suggests this has not led to an increase in litter. Some years ago bins were removed from Stonegate and nobody noticed. We have installed some bins with compactors which do not need to be emptied as often."
Leader, Cllr James Alexander is answering your questions on the budget now. Go to http://t.co/1oJe3gYB #presscyc http://t.co/cLZZ9Koc— @CityofYork 29 January 2013
"Funding reduction in 2013/14 is £4m. £5m in 2012/13 and £9m in 2011/12. The government said in the comprehensive spending review that it would decrease council funding by 28%. However in the recent autumn statement this was increased to 30%. Clearly there is a different between funding reductions and the savings required. This is largely due to increased demand in care services - which is a national problem. By 2015 half of all council expenditure will be spent on care services. In Barnet it is assumed that will no longer be able to afford any services apart from care by this point. I will tweet at @jmalexander1982 a table of funding reductions and counciltax increases. The figures are on '000s."
@yorkpress Do you accept that the removal of litter bins to save money has been a disaster and that York has suffered as a result? #presscyc— @fulfordarmsyork 29 January 2013
You've mentioned Govt funding cuts, but surely that's only part of the story. We aren't losing £21m in Govt funding over 2 years, so why do we need to save that much?
"Few technical hitches... All councils are facing a 30% reduction in funding from Government funding. Some people think the council tax they pay covers the cost of all services the council provides. In reality this only pays for 60%. 40% comes from the Government. With such large reductions, it is impossible to do everything we have done before and in the same way.
"Therefore we need to stop doing some things and we need to deliver some services in a more efficient way. We have reduced management costs by 40% and our back office function has gone from £17m a year to £13m. However savings needed in 2014/15 add up to £11m and this can't be achieved through efficiency savings alone. I believe the current funding model for councils is not sustainable and I have been raising my concerns directly with ministers."
So what is the financial situation facing the council as you prepare to set your budget?
"I have taken part in quite a few radio phone ins but this is a first. It will give me an opportunity to engage with residents and for residents to ask me anything. Let's see how this goes!"
First of all, Coun Alexander, why did you want to take part in this Q&A today?
Coun Alexander is at The Press offices and the Q&A will be starting in a few minutes.
New venture for @yorkpress today - our first live Q+A. @cityofyork leader @jmalexander is in hotseat from 3: http://t.co/4tYOGduG #presscyc— @ga_yorkpress 29 January 2013
Want to ask about what the next two years hold for council services? Or for council tax? This afternoon's Q&A is your chance to do that.
Just a reminder: all questions to Coun Alexander must be about the council's budget. We'll put as many as we can to him during the Q&A.
By the way, just as a heads-up: we're sure everything will go smoothly with the Q&A this afternoon, but if any technical snags crop up, bear with us...
If you want to put a question to Coun Alexander, send a tweet to @yorkpress using the hashtag #presscyc.
You can do that either in the next hour or during the Q&A, which will last about an hour. And Coun Alexander will be giving his response online, so here's your chance to ask what you want to ask.
Good afternoon, and welcome to The Press' live online Q&A with City of York Council leader James Alexander ahead of one of the most crucial periods of the authority's year.
The council needs to save £21 million to balance its books over the next two years, and its budget will be decided in just over four weeks.
Coun Alexander will be joining us from 3pm to answer our questions and your questions - and there is still time to pose them.