Monday, July 04, 2005

Public Enagement on Council's Budget and Financial Planning Process

Cllr David Dixon is chairing a group looking at what sort of say you should have over council tax levels EVERY year residents (including me), receive a bill from Bath and North East Somerset Council asking for what I believe is quite a substantial amount of money to fund public services, some of which we use and some we do not.

But, year after year, there is the social responsibility of adding to the pot in order to make the neighbourhoods in which we live a better place, or sometimes in order to maintain them as they are. Some people believe that for what we pay in council tax we only get our bins emptied and many would argue otherwise.

As a council, we spend taxpayers' money on many services educating our young and old, resurfacing roads, looking after old people, investing in the economy of Bath and north east Somerset and by attracting new and exciting developments. We also try to attract businesses to move to and stay in Bath and ensure that new and old buildings are kept to the highest standard. Then there is the sweeping and maintaining the appearance of our streets. The list goes on.

Just look at some of the achievements over the past years which can be built on with more involvement from our residents.

For the environment we have introduced garden waste and cardboard recycling, we now recycle batteries, having introduced litter fines as part of a litter reduction strategy.

We are building two new schools in Radstock, a state-of-the-art special needs school at St Martin's Garden and a new school in Keynsham while a review is currently drawing to a close on primary schools meals with the positive engagement of various interest groups in order to secure a well balanced diet for our children giving them the sort of healthy start in life that every child deserves.

We introduced the bus gate in Bath which has resulted in reducing congestion, making the city centre a better place to live, work and visit. Bus usage is on the up and we are encouraging better quality buses from First.

We are developing Southgate and Western Riverside which are set to boost the wealth of this area not just economically but also socially with the many amenities and facilities such as cafes, apartments, transport interchange that are in the plans.

We have introduced and developed the community warden scheme which is valued in the community, improving safety for our residents.

And we have delivered some of the lowest council tax increases in the south west. Yet all of these successes require B &NES Council to spend your money. Again the list really does go on.

We all know that we elect councillors to make decisions for us but when was the last time the council or any councillor asked you for your views on how we spend our money?

Do you know how much the Bath and North East Somerset Council spends on services? We all receive a leaflet with our council tax bill, but is that enough?

Has the council engaged the public enough when setting its budget? I do not think so.

Different methods across the country are used to consult with the taxpayer such as, referenda, questionnaires and focus groups, but the question is what works and was it worth the money consulting with residents?

As chair of one of the council's overview and scrutiny panels which reviews council priorities and policies, I notice that it is sometimes the same groups of people who come forward to share their thoughts and ideas. With ever-increasing pressures on council services and not enough money coming from Government to support these extra pressures, council tax is set to always increase or services are set to be cut. I believe that the Bath and North East Somerset Council needs to ensure that we involve as many tax payers as possible when making these decisions.

I think it is worthwhile asking residents how they would like to be involved. That is why I have initiated a review to look at how we engage the public and we would like your views on how we should do this. Please email or attend the public meeting at the Guildhall on Wednesday at 9.30am and tells us what you think.