Council bosses are asking the people of Brighton and Hove to help them as they struggle to save more than £100 million.
Brighton and Hove City Council is facing a funding gap of an estimated £102 million over the next five years.
Chief executive Penny Thompson said: “We have to change, to further cut costs and rise to the challenge facing all public services.”
As part of the council’s attempt to bridge the funding gap, the public are being asked a fundamental question: “If you had control over the city budget, what public services would you stop, start or change?”
The “stop, start, change” challenge implicitly responds to criticism voiced by long-serving councillor Gill Mitchell, deputy leader of the opposition Labour group.
Councillor Mitchell has repeatedly accused the Greens of “salami slicing” – shaving a bit off the budget here and there.
She has long-called for a “zero-based” approach, which means justifying every item from scratch. Or cutting it.
Council leader Jason Kitcat has been blunt about the difficulties facing his party, which was elected on a manifesto of resisting cuts in public spending.
One of the difficulties is that the law requires the council to set a budget. Another is that demand for services is rising. And the law requires the council to provide many of those services.
At the same time, the amount of money given to the council by the government is being cut. It comes to £103 million in the current 2014-15 financial year. The council’s total budget is currently £778 million.
By 2019-20, the government grant is expected to have been reduced to £39 million.
The spending gap – the difference between overall income and outgoings – is forecast to have widened from £26 million next year (2015-16) to £102 million in 2019-20.
What public services would you stop, start or change?
What would you stop, start or change? Some councils have, among other things, closed libraries.
Were Brighton and Hove City Council to close all its libraries and museums, it would save £21 million.
Perhaps the public health department could be sacrificed – even though prevention is said to be better than cure. That would save £19 million.
The same fundamental questions are being faced by other public services, including the NHS locally, the fire service and Sussex Police.
Last week at a meeting of Brighton and Hove Connected – formerly the Local Strategic Partnership – Chief Superintendent Nev Kemp was put on the spot. The divisional commander of Brighton and Hove has a budget of about £26 million – or about 10 per cent of the force total.
He said that – roughly speaking – the force had cut 20 per cent of its budget over the past four years. And over the next four years it would have to cut a similar amount.
People are one of the biggest costs, he said, adding: “That throws up some really difficult questions. We cannot top-slice any more. We have to restructure. What it will end up looking like, I don’t know. But it will affect people.”
Brighton and Hove Connected chairman Tony Mernagh said: “I still fear that people out there have no idea how much has to be saved.”
And, of course, how the millions of pounds of cuts will affect services that many hold dear – and on which many vulnerable people depend.
Council chief executive Penny Thompson said: “We can’t grow our way out of this.”
Council tax may rise, parking charges may rise and the cost of being buried or cremated may rise. But higher fees and charges, more revenue from business rates as the recovery takes hold and more council tax revenue as new housing is built won’t be enough.
Nor will a change of government solve this particular problem.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said in his speech to the Labour conference last week: “We will balance the books and make the sums add up. We will need an iron commitment to fiscal discipline. The next Labour government will get the deficit down. It will mean cuts and tough decisions.”