Cllr Chris Read
Cllr Chris Read

Today Labour councillors formally set Rotherham Council’s budget for 2021/22. Cllr Chris Read – Labour Leader of Rotherham Council – moved our budget and gave the following speech.

Colleagues, I want to start today by thanking Cllr Alam and Cabinet colleagues for their forbearance and dedication through this budget setting round.

And to Judith, Graham and the Finance team whose professionalism and advice ensure that we are once again confident of reaching year end at a balanced budget position.

After eleven years of Tory austerity, and in the face of a global pandemic, it should be no surprise that councils across the country are under unprecedented pressure. Twelve councils are now reportedly in discussion with the government about additional support just to keep the lights on.

The government that told councils they needed to be more entrepreneurial now saying that councils shouldn’t take risks.

The last Conservative manifesto praised the virtue of low council tax. But come the Spending Review, when they announced an extra £2.2bn for councils, they forgot to mention that 85% of it would come from higher council tax bills not government coffers.

It’s no wonder that three quarters of councils with social care responsibilities are expected to increase bills by the full 4.99% this year.

Maybe now we can all just agree that you can’t run public services on thin air.

But even this year, the Tories are cutting the funding for road repairs in Rotherham by £2.6 million.

Even this year, they seem set to withdraw the half million pound annual contribution the government has been making to support the council with Operation Stovewood.

Even this year, even after Brexit, it seems that regional economic growth funding to South Yorkshire will be cut by at least a third.

Don’t fall for the bluster. They haven’t changed.

According to the IFS, under this government the most deprived parts of the country have seen their council budgets cut by nearly twice as much as the most affluent. That’s why they’ll never give Rotherham a fair deal. They really don’t understand communities like ours.

And that’s why the choices that we make are so important.

We haven’t taken commercial risks. We’ve trusted public servants to deliver public services. We’ve made the hard decisions because it has been the right way, not the easy way.

Because we took a long term view, we can keep our council tax rise below those of most other councils this year.

Because we took those tough decisions to secure the future, we are able to confirm a stronger reserves position than we planned and set out £1.8 million of additional revenue spending commitments for the coming year.

It was the Barnsley poet Ian McMillan who described the “sad mood music of austerity in a minor key” – the visible decline in the upkeep of communities.

I love that phrase. We know what he means.

When the streets aren’t clean, it feels like no one cares.

When the town centre is run down that says something about a lack of purpose and pride in a place.

When resources are tight, everyone’s looking over their shoulder in case someone else or somewhere else is getting something that they’re not.

But this year, the grip of the Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the insecurity that far too many of our residents live with.

Nearly a million more children now live in poverty under this government. Those aren’t abstract numbers. They are the names and faces of our people.

Kids like Lilly, 12, whose dad was a regular donor to his local foodbank until he lost his job when the company he worked for had to let him go because of Covid. And out of nowhere, instead of donating, he was receiving.

Or Steph, 13, whose mum was a cleaner on a zero hours contract. And when the schools closed she had to stay at home with her daughter. Overnight, Steph’s mum’s income collapsed.

Or Katherine, who found her two teenage sons were eating her out of house and home when they weren’t in school day after day, week after week.

I’ve changed their identities, but their stories are real. They’re residents in my ward.

The great honour of this job isn’t that people stop calling you by your first name. It’s that when you have the resources you can make the difference.

So last October half term whilst the government dallied, we were able to make sure that 10,000 children in low income families received free school meals.

Nearly 9,000 children have received financial help towards the purchase of school uniforms.

And because we’ve prioritised our local Council Tax Support Scheme, when we’ve received additional grant this year, we’ve been able to go further than many other councils, first crediting eligible families with £200 and now £450 towards their bills.

In total more than 14,000 low income working age households are having their bills for the current year effectively reduced to zero. That’s more than one in six of all households of working age in the borough.

For thousands of children like Lilly and Steph, that’s the difference we’re making.

The rise in child poverty has of course also meant that more children have come into the care system – here, like everywhere else.

Our commitment to ensure that our Children’s Services are as strong as they possibly can be is why next year we will spend £20 million more on children’s social care than we did when I came into this job. It’s why we’re building the next generation of in-house residential care.

But families need all the support they can get, and going into care should only ever be a last resort, which is why we are proposing to expand Family Group Conferencing in our budget today, to keep more families together.

And sadly those insecurities won’t be fixed by the vaccine. They will be with us for longer. So today we’re planning for that future:

  • £100,000 to support 89 work placements for young people at risk of long term unemployment, paid at the Real Living Wage
  • £100,000 to increase our existing support to food banks, and to develop a social supermarket to help those who are ready to move on
  • £150,000 of match funding to help people to stay in work and advance their careers

We’ll help new businesses to create new jobs, keeping our commitment to upgrade our business centres – and to build a new one. And we’ll throw the additional millions of pounds we secured in our devolution deal behind the economic recovery.

We’ll tackle digital exclusion, as well as making it easier to get through to the council on the phone, by committing £50,000 today towards a £450,000 fund to be spent over the coming year, helping residents to get online and be more IT confident.

In every community, we are proposing to increase our Community Leadership Funds to help councillors respond to local needs. We’re increasing funding to support outreach youth work. We’re delivering on our commitment to invest in every library, and restoring the book fund. When it’s safe to do so, more events that will bring people together.

In the communities so badly affected by flooding in 2019, and whilst the government sits on its hands, we are making available £5.8 million of capital to accelerate the development of flood defence schemes.

And what about that soundtrack to austerity, written in a minor key?

Last year we committed £1.8m towards new bins and street cleansing equipment, routine weed removal from our dual carriageways, and a seven days a week responsive street cleaning service.

This year we will fund an additional four Streetpride teams to make a visible difference across the borough, and with a priority on our long neglected cycle ways and areas of high footfall.

We are meeting the shortfall in government funding to ensure we don’t miss out on a £30 million redevelopment of the markets and central library.

And through our new Towns and Villages Fund we will invest £4 million in our local centres, so that the benefits are felt in communities across our area.

Added to our commitment to a thousand new council homes, and huge programme of investment in our roads, we are literally building a better borough.

Of course the cynics will still say it can’t be done, that things can never change, or that we should make perfect the enemy of the good. But we should take pride in how far we have already come.

Because that’s our agenda:

  • A better borough that rises to the expectations of our communities
  • Good jobs, decent homes, public services that set people free
  • And security for those who need it most, so we leave no one behind

With each year that passes, we are able to build a little more on the foundations that we laid, so we can secure the futures that all the Lillys and Stephs and Katherines deserve. Now is not the time to put that at risk. Now is the time to renew our purpose.

Madam Mayor I move this budget.

Cllr Chris Read
Labour Leader of Rotherham Council

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