A play in three acts performed in reverse order over three nights at the Reading Borough Council (RBC) Civic Offices in January 2018.
Act 3 RBC Audit & Governance Committee 25 January 2018
A deathly hush. The end. Did we miss something? As the final curtain fell, the audience of two were left thinking “what now”?
They had read the script and were sure that the final speech was to be made by the external auditors, but they had nothing further to say.
Maria Grindley, executive director at RBC auditors Ernst & Young, had made a non committal but down-beat statement earlier in the evening [at 0:43:30]:
We have completed a substantial amount of work on I and E [income and expenditure] over the last month or so … however we still have a substantial amount of work to complete in order to be able to get to a point to where we can come to a view and can sign off the financial statements.
The financial statements for the year ended 31 March 2017 were due to be signed off at the end of September 2017 and are now four months late.
Act 2 Full council meeting 23 January 2018
The pivotal act of the play: in which the majority of the budget was spent on players and costumes and props; where the deeds set up in Act 1 reached their conclusion. The Mayor, Katesgrove councillor Rose Williams chaired the proceedings.
The lengthy overture was dominated by public questions to the lead councillor for culture, sport and consumer services, Sarah Hacker, about swimming pools, tourist information offices and the current whereabouts of the Russian gun from the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean War.
Then the audience settled down to enjoy discussion on the setting of the Council Tax Base and the Council Tax Support Scheme for 2018/19 which had had a successful dress rehearsal at the RBC policy committee the week before.
The usual fight scene took place between the combined forces of Greens and Liberal Democrats in a condemnation of the cuts to council tax support, and the Labour majority. They parried the attack with cut and paste wording from previous productions. Deputy lead councillor Tony Page said [at 0:55:30].
… we can predict that at the end of the day neither Councillor Duveen nor Councillor White will come forward with any alternative measures to balance the budget …
Conservative councillors gave their support to the measures proposed.
Act 1 Policy Committee 15 January 2018
Policy Committee: in which the Council Tax Support reduction rehearsal was staged. If the cast decided to go ahead with this scene, then it got through to the Full Council Meeting production in front of a live audience.
Where will it end?
No drama is complete without a monologue. Chief Executive, Peter Sloman delivered ‘Where will it end?’ during the final agenda item, the Medium Term Financial Strategy for the years up to 2021 [at 1:03:05]:
… the budget situation the council faces is an extraordinary situation where the council is in a position where, if it is not very careful, it could lose control of its finances and its ability to make decisions on behalf of people in Reading itself if it doesn’t resolve the matter.
Why do I say that?
Because of the sheer scale of savings … In the next year alone we will have to reduce our spending by 15%.
The second element to the report is, as Peter [Lewis, Finance Director] has said, the concept of delivering at pace… if part way through the year we decide not to do them [the agreed planned savings] it would put the whole budget in peril. If, as officers, we don’t get on and do them we won’t get a full-year effect on those savings, so we are going to need to deliver them at pace.
Lastly it’s important we realise we will have to make some fundamental decisions in this budget round; things like full cost recovery in income and charging, looking at service levels but also looking at alternative measures for delivery, so establishing local authority companies, establishing trusts to run some of our services and looking at other models and also market testing some of our services so that we can establish that they are run at market level. Our priority would be to make sure that they are run in-house wherever possible at a market rate so we would want to support that.
And lastly [sic] restrict the growth in employee costs.
A sequel is expected at the next policy committee on 19 February 2018.