Parking charges are set to be hiked and 30-minute free stays at residents’ parking zones (RPZs) scrapped by Bristol City Council to help balance its budget.
Council tax will rise by maximum amount allowed – 3% from April, including 1% for adult social care, under proposals revealed by mayor Marvin Rees and his deputy Craig Cheney on Monday, 10 January.
Managerial jobs at the council will be cut and offices and buildings sold off, some of which Rees admitted the organisation’s corporate leadership had “lost track of” over the years in exactly what it owns and how efficient or even essential they were.
The measures, along with other savings in how the council operates, will claw back a £19.5m deficit for 2022/23 to deliver a legally required balanced budget.
Council tenants’ rent will go up by the cost of inflation plus 1% but there will be no cuts to frontline services, including libraries and children’s centres.
Full details have now been published ahead of next week’s cabinet meeting on Tuesday, where the Labour administration will formally agree its financial plans for the next five years. The proposals will need cross-party support when councillors vote on them in February, after Labour lost its majority in the chamber at last May’s local elections
Housing and frontline services
During a briefing to journalists on Monday, Rees hailed the plans as “a budget for house-building”. The mayor said: “There is a £250m commitment to build homes through [the council’s housing company] Goram and others over three years.
“There are 2,069 additional council homes over seven years and £80m into new energy performance for homes.
“We will be putting £12.5m into new bathrooms in people’s homes. In that, we can look at water efficiency so we can reduce the amount of water used across our stock by billions of litres every year.
“Over 30 years it’s £1.8bilion for council-house building which we think is the biggest investment in the country.”
The mayor said another £12m would be spent decarbonising the council’s buildings and vehicles.
Rees said: “We really have focused on protecting frontline services and vulnerable people.
“Libraries and children’s centres are staying open, and if you compare that to other local authorities, that is no mean feat.”
He said the council was also protecting the Better Lives at Home programme to maintain the dignity of people who needed adult social care.
Cutting costs and rising charges
“There is a heavy emphasis within this budget of reducing costs within the council, looking at our own systems and the costs of services we procure to make sure we get value for money,” the mayor said.
But he added: “There are pressures. There are increases in parking charges. We will be moving beyond the 30 minutes’ free parking in RPZs.”
Higher parking fees would raise an extra £2.3m, along with £1m from bus shelter advertising.
In some areas at present, drivers without a residents’ or visitors’ parking permit can stay for half an hour for free in an RPZ by getting a pay-and-display ticket. This would be axed to generate £500,000.
Rees said at the briefing: “The nature of the financial relationship with central government is broken, it’s out of date.”
He said 12 years of austerity combined with local authorities’ overdependence on decisions from Whitehall “undermines our ability to plan, have steady finance and be a predictable partner”.
The mayor said the impact of pandemic also remained a major financial burden. “Increased demand, lost revenues and inflation in our costs have brought a huge challenge to us,” he said.
“Just two years ago we passed a five-year balanced budget. We were in an incredibly strong position, then Covid came.”
He said that in October 2021 the budget gap was forecast to be £43m but that it had reduced initially to £23m in November and now £19.5m following the government’s funding settlement and through sterling work by council finance officers.
Councillor Cheney said Covid-related losses in council tax collection, business rates and increased energy costs “hit us hard”.
Council-owned buildings and staff
“We are looking at the ways we work, such as how many office blocks we have, and reduce that number so our estate is fit for purpose and driving down some of those costs,” the deputy mayor said.
“We’ve got something like 36 office buildings. Some of them are 20% capacity with people working at home, so we need to spend some time working out where people need to be, how we redesign the office infrastructure to ensure we have people near where they need to be but not a building with only three people with the lights and heat on.
“We’ve got something like 38 storage depots across the city. There is a strong argument to reduce that to two or three.
“We are looking to save £3.5m from the estate.”
Rees said Cheney and officers had completed an “epic” task to produce an interactive map of all the city council-owned buildings – “things the council has lost track of” which were costing money – to clearly show their use, running costs and carbon output.
The deputy mayor said: “That’s what we didn’t have track of before, having it all in a coherent place.
Cheney said cuts in middle and upper management would recoup £5.5m through voluntary redundancies – requiring staff consultation – and leaving vacant positions unfilled.
Rees said: “On our journey as an organisation we are going to be smaller. As a local authority we must be able to do more with less. That is just the world we’re in.”
He said the maximum permitted council tax hike of 1.99% plus a 1% social care precept was necessary because the “brutal reality” was that a lower increase would leave the council unlikely to receive further funding from government for services.
Almost £8m would be saved through initiatives including prioritising adults with social care needs on housing waiting lists and helping them live independently at home, such as harnessing technology.
Asked whether the budget would receive support from other parties at full council, the mayor said: “Behind closed doors there is a recognition of the scale of challenge that is faced and the reasonableness of the process we have gone through to get from £43m to £19m.
“Whether that actually survives the theatre of full council, who knows? There is a by-election coming up and there is a referendum on the mayoral model.
“For some councillors the temptation to indulge in some theatre and chaos and show the system seizing up might be too much, and that would be unfortunate because the stakes are high.
“This is about real money and real people’s lives and we need the budget.”
The budget balances not only a £19.5m deficit for 2022/23, but a total of £33m over five years.