Monday, 24 May 2010

Participative budgeting update

A couple of months ago I posted on a scheme from our local council which invited us to vote on how we would like to spent £0.5m.

The results are now in. My neighbours clearly share the priorities of all right-thinking people, because more votes were cast to spend £100,000 to improve cycling facilities than for any of the other options. So the council are going to do that. Second in the ranking was £100,000 to plant trees. So they are going to do that as well. Third up was £100,000 for extra grit boxes and a snow plough. So they are going to do that one too.

That sounds like good news, doesn't it? Bear with me a while...

The other preferred options were town centre improvements, sustainable street lighting, traffic calming, heritage projects and improved disabled access. They are not going to do any of those.

Hang on a minute, those first three only add up to £300,000. What about the other £200,000 we were voting on?

Well it seems that they've decided not to proceed with anything else in view of the current financial climate. So the people who opted for not spending the money at all get 40% of what they wanted.

On top of that the council budget book shows that £100,000 was spent on the cycle network in 2009/10. Before the participative budgeting exercise the spending plan for the cycle network had already been reduced from £100,000 to zero in 2010/11. There's another £50,000 that might (or might not) come from developer contributions (section 106).

There are some much bigger spending shifts going on. They've also cut back spending in corporate functions (which I imagine few would fight to defend), and on care for the elderly (which some might). And they've reduced council tax, which I imagine had quite widespread support around here. And it's all confused by the complexities of local government finance, shifts in the size of the population and so on.

The bottom line though, is that they seem to have taken away £100,000 from the cycle network with one hand, then given it back with another. In the process they've managed to establish a lower baseline for next year's budget because the £100,00 they've given back is a one-off exercise. 

As an individual I think they've got their priorities muddled, but councillors would no doubt argue that voters gave them a democratic mandate to reduce spending.

I really wanted to look on this participative budgetary exercise in a positive light. The results of the vote were (more or less) what I wanted to see, but at the end of it I'm left with the feeling that we are having wool pulled over our eyes. I wouldn't make a great advocate for more spending on cycling facilities though, because can't help feeling that with a rising population in the over 85 age group the cuts in elderly care are  going to cause a deal more suffering.

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