Friday, November 10, 2006

Money worries

Last night I attended a meeting of the Supporting our Economy Scrutiny and Review Panel.

The final item on the agenda, after reports on training parks staff to be more responsive, an update on the Winter Gardens and a review of the new Seafront Strategy came a report on an overspend in the Leisure Department, with particular reference to Leisure Centres.

Essentially the issue is that there is a projected overspend in the budget for our leisure centres of something like £550,000. Put in the context of a current overspend of some £3.6million across the whole council this may not seem too bad.

The report before the committee asked us either to recommend to Cabinet that the additional amounts be found from savings elsewhere or to reject the request for additional funding, thereby forcing cuts to the level of the overspend on the leisure centres.

My ward colleague, Cllr Fudge, who is the Liberal 'chancellor' of Bournemouth attended and told us in a highly politicised speech that he couldn't find savings elsewhere and if we were to recommend to the Cabinet that we accept the increased funding request we would need to tell him where the cuts would otherwise come.

There were a couple of points that a number of us, both Liberal Democrat and Conservative, didn't understand. The officer presenting the report could only tell us that the shortfall is because of increased utility costs (approx £150,000) and less income than anticipated (£400,000). Beyond that there was no further indication of exactly where the problem lies.

Similarly, no thought appears to have been given, yet, to where the cuts might be made if the increased funding is not available, nor what might be done to rejuvenate their income stream.

It wasn't this that astounded me, but that the request for additional funding was also being carried forward in to future years as there was no sign of matters improving.

The pressure was very much from Cllr Fudge that we should reject the additional funding bid and force the cuts on the centres.

That may well be what we should be doing, particularly given the magnitude of the funding crisis now facing the Council. I'm glad to say, however, that both Conservatives and Liberal Democrat members of the committee voted to ignore this pressure and insist upon the issue being revisited in a separate meeting at which we should be able to consider the funding request and the proposals for additional income generation and potential cuts if funding isn't allowed.

If I ran my businesses like this we would have gone bust years ago. How is it possible that the budgets set at the begining of this financial year have gone so awry? It seems to me they were never sustainable in the first place.

Cllr Fudge expressed himself happy at the end of the meeting, in that he could make great political capital from the fact that we (the Conservatives) had failed to make a decision. I fail to see how that can be when Cllr Angela Manton (LD - Strouden Park) proposed the motion to defer and I seconded it.

Much more importantly, I find it amazing that a problem of this magnitude can be treated with such flipancy and that the councillor in charge of our money can think that a Scrutiny Panel will agree to a decision of this kind without a thorough report on the causes and options in front of us.

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