Getting under the skin of council budgets

It’s a testing but all-too-familiar mix: funding cuts from central government, skyrocketing demand for local services, a growing population, tough choices, and communities vulnerable as they recover from the pandemic. 

As we approached budget setting, our situation in Brent, a north-west London borough, mirrored the position of local authorities around the country.

Against this challenging backdrop, I believe the role of effective scrutiny is more important than ever, and so too is learning from one another.

This year, I co-chaired Brent Council’s Budget Scrutiny Task Group. It was our job to get under the skin of budget proposals, to grasp their real-world effects and to make recommendations for where we felt the decisions of our cabinet and full council could be strengthened.

To bring forward a balanced budget, we were called to scrutinise a package of savings totalling £2.7 million, alongside council tax increases.

“We worked to develop a broader approach than simply reviewing proposed savings

Given the stark financial picture across the country, we wanted to ensure scrutiny was grounded in the reality of the difficult decisions facing the cabinet.

As a group, we worked with officers to develop a broader approach than simply reviewing proposed savings. 

Instead of solely relying on the community consultation undertaken by the cabinet, we went into detail on the impacts, and sought out testimony from people on the ground. We felt we needed to get a deeper understanding of the experience of those who use Brent’s services and the complexity of their situations.

The idea was to test underlying assumptions made in the proposals, and to give cabinet and full council more information and evidence on which to base their decisions. We identified a number of areas to probe:

• the impact of COVID-19 on income from business rates, council tax and rents

• impacts on health inequalities work when grant funding ends

• implications of COVID-19 for the adult social care budget, especially mental health

• pressures within the dedicated school grant

• how the council’s £17 million pandemic recovery package is being spent. 

The task group agreed a mix of less conventional scrutiny methods to build this holistic view, including focus groups and detailed evidence sessions with people on the ground – from local head teachers and voluntary and community sector partners, to teams from our wellbeing services and frontline customer services staff.

By taking this approach, we were able to assess the wider financial and service context, and identify possible future budget pressures and the likely emerging needs of our communities.

It allowed us to make a number of nuanced, practical recommendations. Most focused not on the savings themselves, but on how the cabinet might work differently to overcome and address some of those pressures. 

The group also identified areas where we felt the council could lobby effectively for more support nationally and regionally. 

We have also established mechanisms for pulling insights from these testimonies and learnings from this process through to future budget scrutiny cycles.

Ultimately, we are all trying to deliver a better outcome for local people. 

I am a big believer in the power of scrutiny to support good decision-making and feel this is best realised by being a ‘critical friend’. The approach we took this year achieved just that.


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