Cllr John Cotton is the Leader of South Oxfordshire District Council.
Our ability to freeze council tax again this year comes down to two things: comparatively healthy reserves (our uncommitted reserves exceed £50m) and a strong desire not to spend those too quickly.
This year’s freeze is part of a longer-term plan to lower council tax in our district. Since 2011, a series of cuts and freezes have brought our Band D tax down by nearly ten per cent – more in real terms.
That longer-term plan isn’t a whim: it’s a strongly-held political view that we should provide the services our residents want, at the fairest cost.
We did consider using the £5 option this year. It was an agonising decision: on the one hand, being Conservatives means we take prudent financial views and five years on from here looks less sunny. On the other, we had made a local manifesto pledge to keep taxes low.
In the end, the latter won out.
Clearly, healthy reserves help. Our decent bank balance comes largely from a housing stock transfer in the late 90’s. However, unlike other authorities that have received similar cash windfalls, being Conservative-controlled since 2003 has meant a sensible restraint. We’ve spent money when we’ve needed to, but have resisted the urge to throw it around.
But having money in the bank doesn’t mean we can avoid taking difficult decisions.
We started sharing services with our (at that time, LibDem-run) neighbouring council more than 10 years ago. That first decision led to a shared Chief Exec, then a shared senior management team and, gradually, to a point where, now, all services are shared and the two authorities are housed in one building (a fire at our previous HQ in 2015 did help push that along a little).
Last year, we took the sharing notion a little further and jointly contracted a range of services -including revenues and benefits, facilities management, accounting and HR – with three other district councils. This time, geography was not a factor: Mendip DC and Havant BC are both based more than 50 miles from our headquarters; Hart DC is not much nearer. That project is still in its infancy, but promises to add to our savings pile each year.
The aversion to spending our own money applies less rigidly to other people’s. Our officers are encouraged to doggedly pursue external grants. We sought transformation funds for the five Councils project; we achieved one the highest awards outside of London from the Estate Regeneration Fund; and our leisure team has been undertaking sterling participation work with support from the Go Active programme.
But for all there is to be pleased about in how we’ve managed our money, it’s the quality of services that count the most. South Oxfordshire has been top in recycling for several years now; nearly ten per cent of our annual £15m budget goes on grants to support local communities and the voluntary sector making our place better; our delivery on new homes and a Garden Town is leading the way.
Quality and value. It’s a simple aim.