The independent Audit Commission compares local authorities against a number of factors including council spending per head of population before charges are taken into account. On that measure,Crawleyis seen as a high spending local authority which is not necessarily a bad thing but should be coupled with evidence of consistent customer satisfaction. It is therefore important not to be complacent and to continue to seek ways to improve our services and the value for money that they provide.
Value for money is not simply to do with savings but is about maximising service delivery for each pound spent. If we can deliver the same or a better service for the same or less money, we are providing better value for the Council Tax that is paid. There has been some success in this area with the Council Tax increases charged by Crawley Borough Council since May 2006. Both annual increases have been two percent, which were below inflation and the lowest rises made by any of the councils and police authorities in West andEast Sussex. Over the same timeframe, it has still been possible to increase the number of community wardens and litter pickers, as well as doubling the frequency of neighbourhood street cleansing and introducing jet washing for the neighbourhood parades.
Crawley Borough Council has an unusual financial position where its day-to-day spending on services has not been met by the combined income of Council Tax, business rates, government grant and charges. We have had to fill the high spending gap of some £5 million each year by taking typically £1m from reserves and a further £4 million from interest on reserves. The use of interest on reserves has been a complication in recent months because of the incredible unpredictability of the interest rates themselves. Our level of reserves is high for a district council at more than £100 million but they have been necessary to support service spending.
Value for money in Crawley Borough Council has additional meaning during a recession. If we can cut our dependence on reserves, we can reduce them to a more realistic level and then make capital spending within the town without borrowing. This is a powerful approach for stimulating our local economy at the same time as making important investments in our town in areas such as the neighbourhood centres and residential environmental improvement schemes.
To maintain momentum and make increased capital investment possible, the Council is committing to a series of service reviews, some of which will include a method called systems thinking – see www.systemsthinking.co.uk. This approach robustly challenges how we meet customer demand and how we can be more efficient, measuring how long it takes to meet demand and how much customer contact is required to deliver against it. Using this method, we have achieved major improvements in benefits processing times, with a similar experience in housing repairs in a pilot scheme. Further service reviews are planned to include disabled facilities grants, aids and adaptations; housing allocations and homelessness.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
17th November 2008