THE NEW budget is one that aims to reflect on what is going on in the world.
“It is a big, ambitious budget,” said Cllr John Kaiser, deputy leader of Wokingham Borough Council and the man who masterminded the plans.
“I think that if you believe in what you’re doing and you believe in supporting residents, you’ve got to have a budget that’s proven – it’s really important.
“And I think it’s important that if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing anything.”
He said that the chance to create the new budget was one to “step back and look at what we do and say, ‘OK, how can we do it better?’
“We must fund Children’s Services, for instance, even if it costs us £5 million more. My concern with any service that costs us more money is we need to ensure that we’re putting an investment in to that service and deliver the correct outcomes. It has to be a wise investment.
“We will look after more children with the money, so it’s a good investment.”
Cllr Kaiser added: “We also see changes happening: the demographics are changing in the borough and we’re seeing more children and more families moving in. Wokingham is still a popular place to live.”
He had been a resident for 30 years and he is proud of the some the things that the current administration has been delivering, including new roads.
But he also admitted that some of the works haven’t gone as planned, including Wokingham’s town centre regeneration.
“But now it’s coming to fruition, and I think people are beginning to trust us again,” he says.
In recent years, the council has shaken up its operational structures with a programme called 21st Century Council. But since Cllr John Halsall became leader talk of the project has gone quiet. Designed to save the council money in the long-term, is it now dead and buried?
Cllr Kaiser said that there had been a number of schemes over the years, but there was now a different focus.
“We don’t give it a name,” he said. “The reason we don’t give it a name is because it’s a constant review of what we’re doing.
“It’s part of the managers that run the departments in the council that we expect them to be looking at every penny they spend and ask, ‘Am I spending this in the right way?’.
“It’s an investment: we have to deliver the services that people are expecting to be delivered.”
He continued: “We are looking to employ additional staff in areas where we feel that they’re needed. You will see some changes in management going forward
“We are looking to do something with arts and culture, and we’re going to look at somebody who can come ion and possibly help with that in the town cenre, we want to make Wokingham town centre a destination place.
“We need to put some seed funding in place to get that going, but hopefully we will get grants from governments and from cultural entities to help support that.”
Some of Cllr Kaiser’s thinking is influenced by his time as borough mayor.
“I got around the borough to meet these people. That’s why we’ve got these mayor’s awards now – so it may be something small like somebody who collects the litter been collecting the litter in the street. There are people who get no recognition otherwise.
“But I came out of that mayor’s role thinking to myself, this is not rhetoric, this really is a great place to live and there are so many people out there doing so many things.”
One of the big pushes this coming year will be measures to tackle congestion, and with it air quality.
“We’ve got to get our CO2 down, Now, as time goes on, we don’t know what changes government’s going to make, but they are talking about losing all the internal combustion cars in 2035. And I’m hoping that we will see a move to different forms of transport. And the buses will step up to the plate and, all of sudden, people like you or me, rather than getting into their cars to get to the end of the road, we can drive to a park and ride or get the bus.
“At the moment, the bus network is really disjointed and we need to do something about that.
“But again, that’s years and years of underinvestment. And I guess if we do have a second term one of the big things that we’ll be looking at is addressing that transport issue.”
Cllr Kaiser also pledged to tackle potholes over the coming year, saying that where possible work will be done in the evenings to avoid closing routes when traffic is heavier.
With climate change, he said that some of the plans, such as solar farms would make money for the council. “They’re a commercial investment,” he said.
“I think the best we can do for young people is acknowledged that (climate change) is an issue. Once you’ve got over the fact that it’s something you’re going to deal with, you’re prepared to invest money in it. That’s the best thing we can do.
“We’re not national government, we don’t have billions of pounds, but we can at least start somewhere.”
THIS year’s budget is the most open yet. That’s the view of council leader John Halsall.
At a meeting of Wokingham Borough Council this evening, he will tell the council chamber that the financial plans for the year ahead mean that the council tax rise of 1.99% plus 2% for social care (3.99% in total plus parish precepts) is a below inflation rate.
He is expected to say: “The formulation of this year’s budget has involved a level of transparency and collaboration like no other.
“The opposition in overview and scrutiny has been able to input their comments and concerns throughout the process, which has significantly benefited from this approach. Long may it continue. I commend both John Kaiser and Graham Ebers for taking this significant and positive step.”
And Cllr Halsall also will also look back on the party’s record since the May local elections last year.
“In eight months, we have covered a lot of ground and launched some important initiatives,” he is expected to say.
Cllr Halsall is also expected to state once again that he disagrees with the Government’s insistence on housing numbers, but the new Draft Local Plan will be a step to addressing some of that.
But without one, it would mean that the council would have “planning by appeal” which would mean “developers putting housing where they want and government taking our planning department into special measures, as has happened in Liberal-controlled South Oxfordshire.
“We will get more houses, not less, with no infrastructure.”
Overall, Cllr Halsall feels that the budget is an “ambitious but robust” one.
He is expected to say: “It achieves the careful balance of safeguarding the vulnerable in our community and delivering services to everybody. The revenue budget is in surplus and capital budget reflects our amibitions”.
A full report on Cllr Halsall’s budget speech will be published on our website during the council meeting, which starts at 8pm tonight.