Preston City Council budget 2022: Labour hails 'miraculous' performance, but opposition say progress is too slow and criticise 'ideology'

Preston City Council is “working miracles” by still delivering as many services as it does after a decade of funding cuts.

By Paul Faulkner
Saturday, 26th February 2022, 3:20 pm
Updated Saturday, 26th February 2022, 5:04 pm

That was the claim made by the authority’s deputy leader as the council met to set its budget for the year ahead, which includes a maximum-permitted 1.99 percent rise in council tax.

Cllr Martyn Rawlinson, who is also the cabinet member for resources, said that the increase would raise around £200,000 – but that the authority was nevertheless planning well over £300,000 worth of new investment and still managing to balance its books over the next 12 months.

However, opposition groups accused the authority of failing to make good on its promises of transformative projects for the city – and also lambasted a plan to keep the Avenham Park Pavilion Cafe in public hands.

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Preston city councillors have decided how the authority will spend its money in the year ahead (Google)

That issue was one of several seized upon by the man who was the Labour-run council’s deputy leader until last May – Peter Moss – who defected from the ruling group during the meeting when he revealed that he had been deselected as one of its candidates for this year’s local elections.

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The authority expects to have to find £500,000 in efficiency savings next year if it is to avoid having to draw upon a £1.3m contingency list of cuts to services that it is not statutorily obliged to provide. It averted that risk for the coming financial year, having been faced with the prospect of making £600,000 in efficiencies for 2022/23 this time 12 months ago.

Cllr Rawlinson hailed what he said was a “no cuts” budget that defied a drop in the council’s annual funding from £30m ten years ago to just £20m today.

He said: “So many people in Preston are reliant on the interventions of this council to help them in one way or another, because over the last ten years, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have abandoned them.

“We are protecting and enhancing the city’s heritage – the museum and the markets – and enhancing the city’s entertainment offer with a cinema, bowling alley [and] restaurants, boosting enterprise with the Amounderness House scheme, creating a housing co-op in the city centre [and] addressing a huge gap in youth services [with the panned Youth Zone].

“We still offer services that go above and beyond the statutory requirements in many [areas] even though we have half the staff compared to pre-austerity levels,“ said Cllr Rawlinson, who added that with more generous funding from the government, the authority could rid the city of its “grot spots”.

The council is planning to invest £180,000 over the next year in tree maintenance and its tree strategy and £86,000 in technology to enable the authority’s ‘digital first’ plans.

However, the Conservative opposition said that Prestonians were fed up of “slow progress”.

Deputy Tory group leader Ron Woollam said he was repeatedly asked by people: “When are we going to see improvements in this city?”

He added: “Nothing ever seems to get going. When will the cinema project commence, why is the Shankly Hotel not progressing, when will the Guild, Hall reopen, what’s happening with all the empty department stores?

“They want to see some progress and investment in this city, not just proclamations about the so-called success of the Preston Model and the community wealth building scheme. I am sure that this leader of the council means well, but I am afraid he is deluded if he thinks that it’s going to make Preston grow and prosper.

“This Labour administration needs to be bolder and more dynamic, otherwise I am afraid Preston is going to sink behind and decline.”

Presenting an amended budget, Cllr Woollam suggested that each city councillor be given a £1,500 grant to distribute to community groups in their wards in commemoration of the Queen’s platinum jubilee – and also called for the authority to abandon a planned £85,000 investment in running the Avenham Park cafe for another year.

The Conservatives said that the facility, which the city council took over after it closed down in the summer of 2019, should be handed to an external provider.

Tory leader Sue Whittam said that the venue was “in a fantastic place” and “should be making a profit”.

The Liberal Democrat group made a similar demand and said that the council should at least investigate whether there was any interest from another organisation in taking on the eatery.

“[Labour] might think, ‘We don’t want a Starbucks or some evil company [running] it’ – but you have perfectly reputable charities and not-for-profits which could run this cafe and have experience. If they did, not only would that charity benefit, not only would the cafe improve, but taxpayers would also save that money every year.

“You are too scared to even try because you are ideologically driven to want to have something in public ownership instead of what’s best for the people of Preston,” said Cllr Potter, who acknowledged that the ruling group had been “dealt a band hand” when it came to council funding, but claimed that they were also “playing it really badly”.

He also repeated a call the Lib Dems made last year for the council to drop its £1m planned investment in a proposed community bank to be set up with Liverpool and Wirral councils.

However, Cllr Rawlinson rejected the opposition critique of the authority.

“It says an awful lot about what we are doing here that…the only thing that the opposition can pull us up on is a cafe. We are talking about soup – so we must be doing plenty of things right,” he said, claiming that investing in the staff to run the venue did not mean that it could not still turn a profit.

The authority is also planning to use savings from vacant posts in order to fund additional staff capacity to deliver regeneration schemes that form part of its £20.9m allocation from the government’s Towns Fund and any projects funded by a future bid to the Levelling Up Fund. The council has £64.2m worth of capital expenditure in the pipeline over the next four years, a figure which the budget meeting was told could rise to £100m if other plans come to fruition.

However, Cllr Rawlinson said that the investment in one-off projects was at odds with the declining revenue funding needed to make them a reality.

Meanwhile, council leader Matthew Brown added that he had to pinch himself at the thought of the “boldness of [the authority’s] agenda and said that the local authority was proud be a “socialist council”.

“Preston is doing [things] for itself now – we are doing it in our own way and making sure that it works for everyone, whereas previously we have expected people from outside – especially big businesses – to do it for us,” Cllr Brown said.

LABOUR URGED TO SCRAP “TOYTOWN BANK” IDEA

For the second year in a row, Preston City Council’s plans to invest £1m in the creation of a community bank were a bone of contention in the budget debate.

The Labour-controlled authority revealed its involvement in the proposed North West Mutual Bank – together with Liverpool City Council and Wirral Council – back in 2019. The facility would offer accounts and loans only to individuals and businesses within the region – including those who might otherwise struggle to access some banking services.

However, the appearance of the item in the council’s budget papers once again prompted calls for a rethink from opposition politicians.

“Leave the banking to bankers – a community bank would be disastrous and simply not work, ” Tory deputy group leader Ron Woollam declared. He said that it was “another example of this council believing that it can invoke itself in areas where it has no expertise”.

“It’s a toytown bank, it will not work,” Cllr Woollam added.

Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter said that the bank was a “distraction” and was “not going to happen”

“At first, we were happy for you guys to do the due diligence on it, but when we saw the results of that [and] the details which you haven’t made public, we said that it’s just not going to work.

“What would you rather have – a community bank that no-one’s going to use or actually some action towards tackling climate change in the city? I know [what] 99 percent of people would say,” said Cllr Potter, who added that scrapping the bank idea would allow the authority to empower its new climate change officer with the freed-up cash.

The authority has announced that a £500,000 Covid recovery fund created in last year’s budget will be equally split between climate change initiatives and projects focussed on parks and open spaces.

After leaving the ruling Labour group at the start of the meeting, Cllr Peter Moss also chimed in with criticism of the community bank – not because he disagreed with the concept, but because he said that it was taking too long to come to pass.

“No member of the…family of local Lancashire Labour councils has expressed a real desire to be a founding partner in the bank – we are left only to wonder why not,” he said.

However, cabinet member for planning and regulation David Borrow invited councillors to “look round this city and see the number of banks that exist compared with the number that existed 30 years ago”.

“Ask yourself whether the banks are acting in the interests of their customers or whether they are acting in the interests of the shareholders. People who say ‘leave banking to bankers’ have learned nothing from [the financial crash of] 2008.

“[As] tanks are going into Ukraine and it has become clear the extent to which our banking system is infested by dirty money that our government has allowed to come in to our national banking system, the thought that we could set up a small community bank that actually had the interests of the people and businesses of Preston at heart – rather than looking at multi-billionaires from Russia finding ways to hide their money – [is] actually more important.”

Deputy council leader Martyn Rawlinson said that other countries were “full of community banks” – and that they hardly ever failed.

“How many years did this council spend chasing developers’ millions and holding up progress in the city? And it failed miserably, [so] let’s try something different,” he added.

PRESTON’S COUNCIL TAX BILLS FOR THE YEAR AHEAD

This is the Preston City Council share of council tax bills for 2022/23. It excludes the amounts levied by Lancashire County Council (the majority of the bill), the police and fire services and parish councils where they exist in Preston.

BAND A – £222.42

BAND B – £259.49

BAND C – £296.56

BAND D – £333.63

BAND E – £407.77

BAND F – £481.91

BAND G – £556.05

BAND H – £667.26

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