From an opposition perspective, your role in the budget-setting process is crucial. As important as setting a budget is the need to ensure that it stands up to scrutiny, is transparent, and is seen to be accountable. In addition, it is the role of any opposition to, where possible, provide an alternative.
Given the room for manoeuvre, the scope for change can be limited. But limitation can spark innovative thinking and offer an opportunity to challenge the more traditional approach to budget setting, often defined by ‘salami slicing’.
Of course, effective scrutiny of any proposed budget is about delving into the detail of the options, and assessing risk, deliverability and impact on service delivery. Too often, savings options are agreed only to be unachievable and to end up as an additional pressure in the next budget-setting round. This can often be the case where vague savings are agreed for future years, only to be totally undeliverable when the time comes.
Effective and constructive challenge can be usefully conducted by focusing on a set of initial questions. Do all the figures stack up? Does the budget reflect the priorities of the residents? How robust was the consultation process, or was it just a tick-box exercise? What and where are the unintended consequences? Is there scope to bring savings forward? Is there a clear business case for additional funding items?
For opposition groups, the budget-setting process also provides an opportunity to showcase priorities and objectives that are not necessarily shared by the administration. This may mean removing a saving proposal (for example, turning off street lighting) and replacing it with an alternative saving option – or proposing additional resources for, say, street sweeping, again offset by comparable savings.
There may also be scope to review the composition of the capital programme to invest in schemes that may produce a revenue stream further down the line, but don’t overlook the cost of capital financing.
However, a fundamental outcome for any alternative budget is that it needs to balance and stand up to its own scrutiny.
So here are some top tips for challenging your council’s budget:
- You don’t have to have a full recast of the budget – an alternative can be one amendment or 100 (sometimes less is more!).
- Make full use of the resources available and work closely with the S151 officer, who will have to apply a robustness test to any alternatives – make it balance!
- Communicate your strategy to residents; use the local media and involve community groups in the budget-setting process.
- Where there is more than one opposition group, work together to find common ground in developing an alternative budget strategy, so any amendments don’t end up being split at the council’s budget meeting.
Finally, be prepared! As Benjamin Franklin said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” In particular, this applies to the budget-setting council meeting, where robust, constructive and informed presentation and debate will give credibility and integrity to any alternative budget strategy.