As we continue through the public consultation on our budget, it is revisiting the context within which this is taking place.
From 2010 to 2016, local government faced a real terms funding cut of 37per cent. This on-going austerity, along with financial decisions made by previous administrations, has resulted in Bristol City Council having to make £104 million worth of savings between now and 2022.
The current approach of disinvestment (which goes by the name of austerity) will cost us in the long term as our human and physical assets are underdeveloped. Working with the Core Cities, we will make our case to government on the true cost, not of running a city, but investing in it in order to reap human and financial reward. I have found it remarkable that senior politicians are yet to publically grapple with the fact that the cuts are not free but come at a price that may ultimately be greater than the saving.
We are required to balance the budget by ensuring we do not spend more money than we have come in. While government retains the power to take local control over all budget decisions through the appointment of external commissioners, passing an illegal budget would be possible but meaningless. A balanced budget would be forced on the city. So not only would locally elected politicians lose control and not lead on the priorities we choose but the no cuts budget would never be implemented. Also, the city would incur reputational damage that would undermine its ability to secure the inward investment needed to build the homes and provide the decent jobs Bristolians need.
Many people tell me what they want to prioritise from our limited spend. I welcome that. I want the city to see the council as its own and the council in turn to be responsive. But we need something more. Our discussion must include not only what but what they are prepared to de-prioritise to get it. In that sense it must become a debate the city has with itself. No decision is made in an abstract. If we do not make a saving in one area we have to make it in another area. The consequence of one person’s priority is the de-prioritisation of another person’s priority. We must invest in crisis services such as homelessness. These compete against early interventions such as primary school mental health which in turn compete with the need to invest in areas such as culture and arts that uphold the city’s profile and attractiveness as a location for businesses to invest and locate.
Many people have been pointing out the fact that the cuts will incur longer term cost. From trees to parks to special educational needs, there are few areas of council spending that are not designed to make long term savings with the corollary that cuts have long term costs. This is something we are acutely aware of and will take to government. The problem is that we are required to balance our budget and that means cuts. We want the council to be an early intervention organisation, investing to save. The challenge is that investment will represent a spend in this year’s budget while the savings mightn’t come in until 5-10 year’s time.