Tough Times, High Hopes: Bristol City Council’s new financial policy

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Due to the austerity policy pursued by our current government and a rising population, Bristol City Council has made a drive to promote its proposals to tackle the main challenges facing the city, including a £108m budget gap to be dealt with over the next five years. According to mayor Marvin Rees, “next year we need to save around £52m in order to balance our budget”. This is a vast task, if not unmanageable, considering the council has already had to save more than £200m over the last seven years. However, both the mayor and the proposals put emphasis on reinventing local government, moving away from the traditional “provider of services” focus of the council. The new plan clearly states that trimming budgets to make these savings isn’t “wise or even possible” – it would result in a managed decline in both the quality and quantity of provisions.

The problems to be solved become more overwhelming still when combined with the additional issues faced by all cities. As time goes on it will cost more to simply maintain services at their current level. This is because prices keep rising, as does the demand for services such as social care and education, because of the growing population. This also assumes that the council won’t increase council tax above current rates. And £35m needs to be found next year due to certain government grants being phased out then. Therefore, it will cost more to simply maintain services at their current level, let alone make improvements to the system.

Instead, the new focus is on helping people live independently of public services “in ways which are better for them and for the city as a whole”. The aim of the new proposals is to enable individuals, communities and organisations to cooperate more coherently. The mayor in his statements seeks to reassure people that this will not affect council aid: “of course we will make sure there is help available for those who most need it, but first and foremost we’ll try to help people help themselves”.

The money is hoped to be raised through fees, charges and “by being more entrepreneurial”. This is apparent in the new budget, with some of the changes being almost as extensive as the challenges they are attempting to overcome. Bristol City Council’s Energy Service is committed to making Bristol a carbon-neutral city by 2050, hopefully generating and saving money through improvement in energy generation and efficiency. The council also plans to work with the Bristol Music Trust to review the Colston Hall business plan to ensure it is “both sustainable and able to cope with future demand”, ready for Colston Hall re-opening in 2020, after the planned closure period of spring or summer 2018 until 2020. This, alongside other proposals such as introducing adult admission fees for the Red Lodge and Georgian House museums, making the Bristol Film Office self-financing, and new ways of running parks and open spaces, is hoped to increase income from cultural services.

Other plans put forward include a review to reduce the operating costs of the Lord Mayor’s Chapel and improving the performance of the council’s commercial and investment property portfolio. There are even propositions to increase priority service and booking fees for weddings and to reduce the amount spent on civic robes and catering within the council.

The faith put in this new budget plan is evident in its branding, which to be fair is succinct if not entirely reassuring. The council has, however, actively encouraged Bristolians to have their say on the new budget proposals, with a public consultation as well as an online simulator that challenges people to set their own budget for the council. In the mayor’s own words, “these are hard times but we’re getting a real grip on the challenge. By taking part in this consultation you’ll be part of that process”. With the consultation closing at midnight on Sunday 17 December, anyone yet to take part can visit bristol.gov.uk/corpstrategy to learn more about the proposals and fill in the survey.