An increase in council tax, new or higher charges and cuts to services. These are the uncomfortable options being considered by Horsham District Council to help close the gap between its income and spending.
Councillors in the ruling Conservative group are warning that the council will be squeezed even further by cuts in government funding and potentially sluggish economic growth.
Cllr Roger Arthur, council Cabinet member for efficiency and resources, said the Cabinet would explain detailed proposals at a meeting before Christmas.
He told councillors yesterday evening: “It will be many years before the UK gets back down to a position where the private sector is again big enough to support the public sector. In the meantime, local authority funding is one of the easiest areas to hit and the government will continue to hit us.
“Not only has overall government funding reduced by well over £1 million per year to 2012-3, but the decline is accelerating. The government’s cupboard is bare and it would be naïve to rely on net government funding to recover or even flatten out.
“The council has already cut its costs by several million pounds and has over 100 fewer staff than in 2007, when the recession started. That was achieved by excellent teamwork between members and officers. Not only has productivity increased, but we have managed to sustain discretionary services such as antisocial behaviour management and over £250,000 per annum in funding of voluntary organisations.
“The district council will need to not only minimise its costs but to find new income to survive and to maintain the discretionary services, which are much valued by residents. We will seek to do that in a way that does not unduly increase the tax burden on those who can least afford.
“We will make the best of the hand that has been dealt us, doing all that we can to sustain the discretionary services which have placed Horsham district in the top echelon of UK councils. That is our challenge and we won’t shrink from it.”
Cllr David Holmes said cuts in government grant had been partly off-set by the introduction of the New Homes Bonus, which is paid to the council based on the number of new homes, empty houses brought back into use and affordable homes.
Cllr Holmes, leader of the council’s Liberal Democrat group, said: “We should not exaggerate the present situation and we should not be unreasonably pessimistic. An exaggerated situation must not be used as an excuse for cutting the good things this council does in favour of a belief that the public sector should be kept small and instead things should be done by the private sector, the voluntary sector or even not be done at all.
“Planning on the basis that all the listed income losses and expenditure increases (in a council report) might happen suggests panic and a lack of management control.”
But Cllr Ray Dawe, leader of the council, said it was right to err on the side of caution and Cllr Andrew Baldwin, Cabinet member for the environment, maintained: “I don’t think we are exaggerating. Thirteen years of a Labour government left this country broke.”
Cllr Brian Donnelly (Conservative, Pulborough and Coldwaltham) said central government had taken money away from Horsham district using a “variety of devious mechanisms”, but the council was making a “calm, steady, analytic attempt” to balance the budget.
Cllr Godfrey Newman (Liberal Democrat, Forest) said: “Because we have been artificially holding down tax levels, we are now suffering more than we should be. If proposed policies do not work, we are in danger of risking our non-statutory services because of past financial policies.”
Public speaker Paul Kornycky said the council’s financial projections were unduly pessimistic as they greatly underestimated income through the New Homes Bonus.
Mr Kornycky, who has been campaigning to save and improve leisure facilities in Broadbridge Heath, told councillors: “With the housing developments already underway, it would be astounding if the housing stock did not increase at all over the next two years. It seems totally untenable to see houses being built today which are not apparently being acknowledged in these projections.
“Difficult decisions on valued services will need to be made. Yes, do make them on cautious figures, but please also ensure that the figures themselves are inherently fair and credible.”
Katharine Eberhart, the council’s director of corporate resources, responded: “We don’t want to count on something that we don’t have full control over. We don’t think house-building is going to stop, but we are recognising that it is not in our control.”