Ray Dawe: Moment will come when easier choices are gone

You may have seen the headlines last week that councils in England face a 10 per cent cut in funding from central government as part of the coalition’s spending plans for 2015/16.

Councils basically get their money in three ways: from the council tax we all pay, from income on things like car parks, leisure centres and green waste charging and from central government in the form of grant. It is this final area that the Government has been cutting and will undoubtedly continue to cut as it in turn tries to trim the huge gap it inherited between its income and its expenditure.

At Horsham at the beginning of this year we started a three year programme where we attempted to anticipate the drop in the amount the Government gave us. Compared with 4 years ago, government financial support for us in real terms has dropped by 36 per cent or an amount equivalent to £2.5m. It looks now that we have to assume both big further reduction over the coming years and that within 5 years or so that all government grant may disappear and councils will become much more dependent on maintaining and helping grow a strong local economy and employment and receiving instead a part of the business rates. This leaves councils in a much more vulnerable financial position – particularly if we don’t expand our business base enough - and with a very big hole in the council’s budget that we have to fill.

We have tried to become more productive and over the last 5 years we have shaved over £7m from our net costs and have lost over 100 staff while maintaining existing services, introducing new ones (in particular one of the best recycling schemes in the country) and taking over services passed on to us by central government.

To part meet the challenge, we have a need to confront the reality that we must not only control salary levels but we need to look at the terms and conditions under which our staff have hitherto operated. Over many years anomalies have crept into our terms and conditions and this has resulted in situations where we have members of staff doing identical jobs but receiving different rates of remuneration. We also have a need to look at redundancy payments which are considerably higher than the local council average.

Since January, we have been looking at these particular points and now, following several months of discussion between the staff and management, a set of proposed changes to terms and conditions of employment has been agreed for consultation purposes. There is a clear acknowledgement of the desirability of reaching a collective agreement with the two recognised trade unions (GMB and Unison). This way all employees’ contracts can be varied if the unions and the council, as the employer, agree.

In April, the unions agreed that the consultation process had been full and fair and all parties maintained a commitment to securing changes through a collective agreement. The upshot is that a proposed package has now been agreed. The aim is now to conclude this exercise as rapidly as possible and July 31 is the final decision date. On that day a special meeting will be held which will consider the results of the negotiations and the unions’ decisions following their consultation with their branch members. In order to achieve a collective agreement both unions and the council’s Personnel Committee must approve the changes. Elected council members have closely followed this process and all those I have talked to about the revised package, that has emerged through negotiations, are fully behind them as being fair and absolutely necessary.

The choice union members have is between the revised negotiated package and the January proposals. To secure the improvements that have been negotiated requires a yes vote from both sets of union members.

We are fortunate that we have been prudent over the years, keeping an adequate level of reserves, trying to keep council tax bills low for the public and running a tight ship but there comes a moment when all the easier choices are gone. It is therefore vital that we achieve this negotiated settlement within the next four weeks!