South Gloucestershire launches Community Conversations as part of public consultation on Council budget amid call for more Government funding

0
1007
Community Conversations design graphic

South Gloucestershire Council has launched a new approach to public consultation as it shares the details of the authority’s potential budget for next year. Community Conversations is designed to help local people to understand the impact of ongoing funding cuts and, most importantly, to help them to make their voices heard before decisions are made.

The council is facing the prospect of making incredibly difficult decisions that will affect the services it can deliver and, in some cases, will need to increase or introduce charges for some things.

Because of significant increases in costs, driven by inflation and demand, while Central Government funding continues to fall in real terms, the council must follow through on a range of savings and income generating plans that were put in motion when the last budget was set. These plans will deliver a balanced budget, as the council must legally do, but the worsening position means that further cuts in future years may be inevitable unless Government increases support for local authorities.

The outline budget is based on raising council tax by 4.99 per cent, which equates to a £1.82 per week increase for a Band D property. This is the highest increase possible under current government rules, but below inflation and it will not, by itself, allow the council to keep up with rising costs.

Council Co-Leaders, Councillors Claire Young and Ian Boulton, are clear that any increase in costs passed on to residents is regrettable during the cost-of-living crisis. It is also unreasonable to expect local people to bear the brunt of the impact of a funding shortfall from Government, and they have written to both the Secretary of State for Local Government and the Chancellor to demand more support for local services in this year’s Autumn Statement.

The council is also committed to improving the way it consults with local people. Feedback from residents has been clear that they want to have more respectful and two-way engagement with the council. This has led to a new approach, which is being called Community Conversations.

The hallmark of Community Conversations is making it easier for people to understand the information they are asked to comment on and, most importantly, easier for them to make their views known.

In addition to much improved online presentation of often complex and detailed information, the council is committed to providing in-person opportunities for residents to speak to council officers and elected members. A range of activities will be rolled out over the coming months as part of the budget consultation and ultimately shape the way the council engages with residents on all issues.

Council Co-Leader, Councillor Claire Young, said: “Local people know that we are facing major challenges to afford the services they need, given rising costs and the real-terms cuts to the money coming in from Government; they see it in their own lives and finances.

“We want to have Community Conversations with residents as we prepare to set next year’s budget. We want to help people understand our financial limitations, but we also want to hear about the challenges residents are facing so that whatever we do, we can do everything in our power to reduce the negative impact on them of the funding shortfall.”

Council Co-Leader, Councillor Ian Boulton, added: “Community Conversations is about just that, two-way, grown-up engagement. It’s about us giving people the information they need and then listening to what they have to say.

“We will make online information more engaging and interactive so that people can see what the details might mean for them. And for those who want to have a discussion in person, we want to make that easier too, by getting out into people’s communities. We will be visiting different types of venue as part of the budget consultation process, and will be continuing on with this new style of engagement by visiting shopping centres and libraries, and even pubs and cafes, for example, in 2024 and beyond.

“We know that many of these conversations will be difficult. There will be things in this draft budget that people won’t like. There are parts of this budget that we don’t like. But if consultation is to be meaningful, it needs to be about more than ticking boxes.

“There will be decisions we need to make in the future that will affect services people rely on, but only by talking directly to those people will we be able to make sure we do everything possible to reduce the impact, particularly for those who are most vulnerable and already disadvantaged by an unequal society.”

Key questions that are being asked in the consultation include:

  • By how much residents feel that Council Tax rates should rise
  • How car parking charges could be introduced so that the council can recoup its costs, but continue to support local high streets and communities
  • How to implement savings in the Council Tax Reduction Scheme budget: To minimise the number of people impacted; or to spread the impact, which would affect more people who receive the benefit, but each would be affected less.

Information, in the form of an initial Equality Impact Assessment is also presented, which shows the accumulated impact of funding cuts and the cost-of-living crisis on different communities. The council is committed to doing all it can to help reduce inequalities, so understanding their impact will help when deciding how to lessen the impact when changes to service take place.

Residents will also be asked how satisfied they are with existing services and about the approach the council should take to meeting new challenges and their priorities for the future.

The formal consultation process will run until Friday, 8 December. Councillors will consider the feedback before finalising a budget to take to the Full Council meeting in February next year. We’ve made assumptions about how much financial support we will receive from Central Government for the year ahead. This could still change, and we won’t know the final position until after the Government’s Autumn Statement, in November, and the Local Government funding settlement, which usually happens in late December.

For more information about the consultation process and details of the online and in-person opportunities to take part, please visit the website: www.southglos.gov.uk/south-glos-budget-2024.