Thursday, January 07, 2010

Budget Consultation Begins

This morning Boris appeared at the Budget and Performance Committee to take questions about his 2010/11 budget proposals. Chaired by John Biggs, the meeting was good natured, perhaps reflecting optimism at the start of what promises to be an eventful year.

Precept Frozen Again

The headline is that the council tax precept is to be frozen at zero for the second year running. It's not just about money - as Lib Dem leader Mike Tuffrey admitted there is an equality aspect too, because council tax places a disproportionate burden on some Londoners. Pensioners on fixed incomes are particularly affected.

Boris was pleased to announce a saving of £55 million, with band D council tax now £18 less than it would have been under the previous mayor's spending plans. City Hall staffing had been reduced by around 180 posts following the Organising For Delivery review conducted in his first year.

Last year the Assembly passed a motion welcoming the council tax freeze, with Labour support. They also supported Ken Livingstone who raised the precept by over 150% during his two terms, so their overall position is unclear. John Biggs was keeping his powder dry this morning, giving no sign of Labour's plans for this year.

The Case For London

Boris was characteristically robust in his support for Crossrail. He pointed out that cancelling the project would send a very negative signal about London's recovery and would save a relatively small amount of cash. With the election approaching and large spending cuts inevitable, the Mayor will be lobbying both the main parties to secure support for Crossrail. Dealing with a Parliament where many Northern MPs feel that London gets a disproportionate share of investment can be challenging - as I recall from my own appearance at the Transport Select Committee following the Metronet collapse.

On the troubled PPP front history is repeating itself, with Tubelines now in conflict with London Underground over payments. The PPP arbiter has ruled that LU should pay £400 million more than they estimated but this sum still falls well short of Tubelines' demands. Potentially the passengers could find themselves picking up the extra costs of Gordon Brown's imposed scheme. Boris will be trying to secure the money from government funds.

Despite subsidy reductions, Boris was keen not to cut the bus network. He referred to his decision last year to save the bus route serving Havering-Atte-Bower, a lifeline particularly in the current snowy weather, however not all the bus routes introduced under Ken Livingstone's reign have proved popular and there may be an opportunity to review some of these routes if the network needs to be pruned.

The Process

The Committee will now draw up its response to the budget consultation. As this has to be agreed by all parties it is likely to contain requests for more detailed information rather than political fireworks.

The proposals will then be debated at a meeting of the full Assembly, with Boris answering questions. Alternative proposals may be tabled - only the Lib Dems and the Greens did this last year - and voted on. The budget itself only requires the support of a third of the Assembly's 25 members to pass unamended,

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