Unfortunately, due to the guillotine being reached, I was unable to deliver my backbench speech on the 2016 Budget for the Borough of Basildon but below is the full text of the speech I would have given:
I cannot say I rise to greet this budget with the same enthusiasm I have previous budgets because – though there are things in here that I welcome (not least the continued investment in Billericay High Street, in my ward) – it does go against the grain for me, as a Conservative, to welcome a rise in the Council Tax.
That said, as I regard this as both necessary and unavoidable, I do congratulate my friend and ward colleague, Councillor Sullivan – Basildon’s own ‘Iron Chancellor’ – on delivering a difficult budget with the deftness of touch we have come to expect from his excellent stewardship of this Borough’s finances.
Now, as I say, no Tory is going to get to his feet and welcome a budget that raises the Council Tax without a degree of reluctance… but I shall be putting my hand up for this Budget – because it is undoubtedly the right thing to do. As a responsible Party of Government, we on these benches have a duty to the people of Basildon to act in their best interests. We have not the luxury of those Opposition parties, who can simply play to the gallery and say whatever is popular. Tories must balance the books. That’s why people elect us.
In fairness, my ward colleague was always going to find his own act a rather hard one to follow. Since becoming Cabinet Member for Resources in 2013, Councillor Sullivan has delivered not one, not two, but three Council Tax freezes. Indeed, his predecessor – whose name I forget – not only delivered a freeze himself the year before but, in 2011, actually delivered a modest cut!
The Conservative Party is the low-tax party. We believe our residents know how to spend the pound in their pocket more wisely than we do and we know that there is simply no such thing as ‘government money’; there is only taxpayers’ money. That is why our Group has always prided itself in keeping the Council Tax low. Councillor Sullivan has always been able to deliver that restraint without having to make savage cuts to services and whilst continuing to make considerable investment across the Borough. He has done that through robust planning and prudent financial management.
In our own Billericay East Ward, we have seen significant investment in our High Street, to the tune of over £300,000. There was £150,000 for the refurbishment of Billericay swimming pool and half-a-million for Hannakins Farm but other areas have also benefitted from my friend’s largesse:
- Half-a-million for the Community Investment Fund, including Kent View Road in Vange
- £90K for Markhams Chase Play Centre in Lee Chapel North
- The £1m rebuild of the Triangle shops in Langdon Hills
- Not to mention £500K for community halls
- £75K for estate clean ups
- and the £20K put aside for our World War One commemorations.
This investment is made possible by the economic competence only a Conservative Administration can provide for Basildon.
But, the fact is, we knew the halcyon days would not last forever and that we could not freeze Council Tax indefinitely. Local government in Britain is changing and faces unprecedented financial challenges, which will require a profound shift in the way we, as local authorities, finance ourselves and deliver services for our residents.
We all know, between now and 2020, core Central Government funding is going to pretty much halve. This should not come as any surprise to any of us, considering the economic situation inherited just five short years ago and the scale of the problem bequeathed to us by the last Labour Government.
And, of course, Tories colleagues in government all believe in low taxes just the same as we do! That is why Tories in government have increased the personal tax allowance, giving nearly 30 million people in our country a tax cut and taken 3 million of the lowest paid in our society out of Income Tax altogether. We were able to do that because we took the difficult decisions in government to get the deficit down and get the UK economy back on track. In that, George Osborne has been largely successful: we are now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world; with record employment and record low interest rates. But we still have a large fiscal deficit and a Conservative Government was elected last year with a working Commons majority on a clear, unambiguous pledge to carry on reducing the deficit and building up a budget surplus.
We, here in this place, must play our part in this strategy and the Government have introduced a range of measures local authorities had been calling for, devolving powers and resources to local people, such as allowing us to keep 100% of the Business Rates income, for example. Things like this will help us better control our own destiny but will mean some re-alignment on our part.
I for one welcome the challenge. The old model of local government finance was a busted flush, leaving us dependent on decisions made from the Chancellor’s desk in Whitehall. Even London, the most devolved authority in the country, relies on Central Government for three quarters of its funding (compared to New York, where it is 30%, or Berlin, where it is just 25%). Increased local responsibility for budgets will create incentives to innovate and modernise how people engage with local services. This council has already blazed a trail with Sempra Homes and our co-location deal with the Department for Work & Pensions. I am all for decentralisation – the most successful efforts to reduce inequality are found in countries with comparatively high freedom to fund their own finances – Finland, for example, has some of the lowest income inequality in Europe and one of the lowest dependencies on central funding.
This is the direction of travel. It will be a tough period for local councils but I know we here in Basildon can weather the storm, as long as we have a Tory Administration, because Tories have the proven track record in administration in this Borough, not only for efficient and prudent financial management but for innovation and seizing opportunity.
So, I welcome the ongoing investment around the Borough and, while I always deprecate a tax rise, I shall support this Budget tonight and look forward to future budgets when, having made the tough choices, we will be enabled once again to vote for freezes and, who knows, maybe even the occasional cheeky tax cut.