Liberal Democrat run Three Rivers District Council has just set its part of the council tax at an average of £154.30 – just over 2% BELOW the equivalent figure for 2006/07. This is a cash reduction, so next year people will be paying 2.3% less than they were paying six years earlier. When inflation is taken into account, the cut is almost 20%.
Only one other local authority (Hammersmith & Fulham) has achieved a cash reduction over this period – and unlike the London borough, Three Rivers was not previously run by a profligate Labour administration to provide easy targets for cuts.
So how have we achieved this?
Certainly not as a result of generous Government funding. Our medium-term financial plan assumes Three Rivers will suffer one of the largest percentage reductions in central government support of any council in England, falling from £5.7m in 2010/11 to below £3.5m by 2014/15. Even after adjusting for some transferred responsibilities, this it is a reduction of almost 30% over the four year spending review period, compared to an average for England of 15% – the second-highest reduction of any council in England according to DCLG figures published last year.
Nor have we cut front-line services. We have taken a conscious decision not to cut those services most valued by local residents and have continued to invest in our environmental services (our recycling rate has now reached 62%) and in leisure, including two new leisure centres, one in partnership with neighbouring Watford.
With the support of our committed staff and Chief Executive we have made significant savings in back office and administrative costs. Efficiency savings (defined as savings that do not affect the level of service offered to residents) are rigorously sought each year, and a further £1/3 million for the coming year brings the total saved since 2005 to over £3million. Not bad for a small district council.
This total includes the savings from sharing back-office services with neighbouring Watford. This has been a long-term plan, started well before the current vogue for shared services, and has been implemented cautiously and professionally. We have achieved fully integrated shared services, with services operating from each council’s premises and entirely new terms and conditions for all staff. The inevitable teething troubles have been overcome and the required savings delivered without affecting the level of service offered to residents.
We have introduced further innovations, including a Customer Services Centre, where the overwhelming majority of all calls into the council can be dealt with by the first person answering the phone. We have also sought to share facilities – for example the local police station in Rickmansworth now occupies space in the council offices that was otherwise unused as a result of the transfer of the council’s housing stock to a new housing association and some of the council’s leisure facilities to a charitable trust.
Councillors have also shown leadership in the efficiency drive, proposing cuts to allowances in 2011 and avoiding using taxpayers’ money to fund members’ administrative support.
We intend to continue to run the council in a similar manner, with a long-term recognition that we are the custodians of residents’ money and responsible to ensure that everything that is raised in tax is spent in the most effective possible way.
* Cllr Matthew Bedford is the Deputy Leader of Three Rivers District Council and the Executive Member with responsibility for Resources.