Despite government announcements about the end of “austerity”, Exeter City Council has to decide how to reduce its running costs by £2.4 million this year if it is to comply with its legal obligation to produce a balanced budget for 2020/21. The ruling Labour group’s manifesto for the May 2019 local elections gave no indication about how the spending cuts would be made.
There is significant public interest not only in what services will be reduced, but in the process the council will adopt in identifying them. Will a list be drawn up by officers from which councillors will be unable to deviate, or will there be open debate and some form of engagement with residents about where savings can be made and perhaps new revenue-raising avenues identified?
Exeter City Council said that despite its central government funding being cut from £12.1 million in 2010/11 to £4.4 million in 2019/20, it has managed to maintain one of the lowest council tax rates in England. In relation to preparation of the 2020/21 budget, for which the £2.4 million cuts need to be identified, a council spokesperson said:
“Staff are currently working on early budget proposals in conjunction with elected members, portfolio holders, the Leader of the Council and Chief Executive. These high-level discussions are either emerging, or have yet to take place. They will then be working across the summer to identify how to deliver a balanced budget.”
“There are many reasons why this remains a fluid figure right up to the April 2020 deadline. Depending on the nature of budget proposals, consultations would take place from the autumn as they did last year, for example, on toilet closures and community grants. Over the past five years staff numbers have reduced by over 100 whilst most public facing services have continued alongside taking on additional work, such as helping to try to solve congestion.”
The council’s consultation over toilet closures bears some scrutiny. In order to balance the books for the current budget year thirteen of the city’s council-run public toilets were closed on 29 April 2019. The sequence of events leading to the closures ran as follows:
15 January 2019: Councillors on the Executive approve a public consultation on proposals to close a list of thirteen public toilets, half of all those in Exeter. No equalities impact assessment is made available at the meeting.
17 January 2019: Place Scrutiny Committee is asked to approve a draft budget for the year beginning April 2019. The budget line for public conveniences shows a proposed increase of £170,670 with an explanation in the accompanying commentary. Only the very small print of Appendix 2 reveals that the figure includes an annual spending cut of £65,000.
February 2019: A web-based consultation runs for a period of three weeks. It is less a consultation than a user survey, and limited to toilets targeted for closure. There are 526 responses, which officers describe as “relatively few”, although the 400 people who attended a 2015 consultation exhibition on the plans for a new leisure complex were deemed by the council to constitute popular support for what is now the £51.8 million St Sidwell’s Point project.
26 February 2019: Full Council approves the budget for 2019/20, which includes the £65,000 spending cut “subject to consultation”.
9 April 2019: Executive receives a report on the outcome of the consultation including a recommendation to confirm the closure plan. The spending cut has been reduced to £60,000. The report also highlights the fact that 62% of respondents used the “any additional comments” box to object to the closures, and now includes an equalities impact assessment which spells out in detail the impact of the closures on the population groups particularly at risk of urinary incontinence. Executive confirms the closure plans.
26 April 2019: A special meeting of Place Scrutiny Committee is held, following a requisition from opposition councillors to “call in” Executive’s decision to close the toilets. The call-in of an executive decision by a scrutiny committee is highly unusual, reflecting the strength of public and political feeling on the issue.
The call-in debate was the first time the issue had been discussed by a wide range of councillors in a public forum, so it is worth noting some key points:
The committee chair, Councillor Luke Sills (Labour) told members that they would have to find equivalent savings elsewhere in the already-agreed budget if they wanted to reverse Executive’s decision. Some councillors sitting in the public seats who were not members of the committee commented in stage whispers that the chair was out of order since there was no requirement in the council’s standing orders for such a stipulation.
Conservative, Green and Liberal Democrat councillors then made a series of pertinent practical points about problems faced by people who need to stop off at a toilet when travelling across the city by bus (and indeed by bus drivers themselves), as well as the difficulties faced by homeless people. They argued that the community toilets option floated by the council, under which shops and other suitable businesses would allow their toilets to be used by the public, should have been implemented before the closures, though the lack of interest shown by businesses in this idea suggested that this might not be viable. Councillor Olwen Foggin (Labour) broke ranks by declaring that she had not gone into politics to close essential public services before offering two options for raising compensatory revenue, both ignored by the committee.
Responses from lead councillor David Harvey (Labour) and the Director of Place, David Bartram, relied heavily on three points. First, that councils were required to carry out an equalities impact assessment and to note the results, but were not obliged to act on its findings even when there were negative consequences. The financial pressures on the council were sufficient to justify setting aside the impact assessment.
Second, that the police were supportive of the closures as a means of reducing anti-social behaviour. Devon and Cornwall Police subsequently said: “we are supportive of plans from Exeter City Council to close public toilets linked to drug use, and we will continue to tackle anti-social behaviour in and around the city.” The council’s proposals identified six of the thirteen to be closed as having problems with drugs use: Blackboy Road, Ennerdale Way, Fore Street Heavitree, King William Street, Musgrave Row and Okehampton Street. All but three of the rest were reported as suffering from vandalism and other anti-social behaviour.
Third, that there was no incentive to make community toilets available as long as the existing council-run toilets remained open. Officers would pursue a more targeted approach to businesses in response to the change.
No plans were offered for what would happen to the sites of the closed toilets, or for the costs of necessary maintenance in the period until disposal. Officers had been tasked to explore options.
A Labour member then proposed that since the committee was not in a position to identify alternative budget savings, it had no option but to take no further action in response to Executive’s decision. All five Labour hands went up, and that was it.
The toilets have now been closed.
We report this series of events in detail because it represents to a major wrangle over a relatively minor sum. How shall much larger cuts amounting to £2.4 million be identified and agreed? Should there be greater public engagement earlier in the decision-making process, when there is still time for further consultation and revision?
Green Party councillor Diana Moore, who was elected last month with a commitment to supporting greater dialogue between the council and communities, argues that the whole process for setting budgets should be more transparent, with opportunities for everyone to influence them before they are finalised by councillors.
She said: “The city council now faces really difficult choices about how to achieve a balanced budget. A small group of councillors and officers, however able, cannot think of everything. Labour need to explain the cuts they are planning to the public early, and it makes sense to go out and invite ideas from residents and businesses about how to tackle these financial problems. We need a council which is willing to draw on the skills, expertise and ideas of residents.”
“Participatory budgeting is an established democratic technique for engaging people in decisions on how public money is spent. It has been used by several councils including Newcastle, Southampton and Tower Hamlets, and there is no good reason why it cannot be done in Exeter. Any well-designed approach to seeking community views on council spending would help people understand the financial pressures the council is under and why it takes the decisions it does.”
It remains to be seen whether Exeter City Council will act on these ideas or whether it will repeat the approach it has taken with the closure of public toilets.
Meanwhile, out on the streets the consequences of the closures are already evident. As the author was photographing a recently-closed convenience in respectable Whipton, a man approached, rattled on the doors, saw the sign and stated for all to hear: “I’ll have to do it on the grass, then.” And he did.