‘More detail needed’ say opposition councillors in Barnet after ‘vague’ plans to save £72m revealed

Hendon Town Hall. Picture: Matt Brown/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Hendon Town Hall. Picture: Matt Brown/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) - Credit: Archant

Barnet opposition councillors were this week confused by an apparent “lack of detail” in the town hall’s plans to save money and close a £72 million budget gap.

Smart cities, a parking review, garden waste charges and other savings proposals are included in Barnet Council's latest budget plans, which are now being put to a public consultation.

Adding up to £35.1 million, the savings are needed to help the council balance its books over the coming five years.

But at a meeting of the policy and resources committee on January 6, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors criticised the plans - and warned the council could be heading for bankruptcy.

Cllr Gabriel Rozenberg (Lib Dem, Garden Suburb) said he was "really perplexed by the vagueness of these multi-million pound savings".

Cllr Rozenberg was a member of the ruling Conservative group until defecting late last year.

He said he did not understand what was meant by the parking review - designed to save £3.4 million up to 2025 - and was concerned the council planned to charge people to park outside their own homes by rolling out a borough-wide controlled parking zone (CPZ).

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Cllr Ross Houston (Labour, West Finchley) called the savings plans "a wish list, to some extent".

He pointed to a line in the plans that says "smart cities" will provide opportunities "to positively impact residents and businesses by providing better access to emerging technologies whilst also reviewing opportunities for commercialisation".

The council says smart cities could save £1.7 million over the next five years.

But Cllr Houston said: "As a member of this committee, I would like to see more detail about what we are being asked to agree.

"If I don't understand it, how are people we are consulting meant to know what it means?"

Cllr Rozenberg also admitted he did not understand the smart cities proposal.

Council leader Cllr Dan Thomas (Conservative, Finchley Church End) defended the savings plans.

He said: "This level of detail has always been as it is today. These are headline figures and working proposals in principle. "The garden waste one, for example - it is quite clear it is about charging for garden waste."

Cllr Thomas said the long-term plans were still being drawn up and more detail would be provided at future meetings.

The council leader also assured Cllr Rozenberg that CPZs would not be imposed on streets if they were not needed.

John Hooton, Barnet Council's chief executive, told the meeting the smart cities plan involved generating income from highways infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging points.

Despite identifying savings of £35.1 million, the report reveals a further £36.7 million of cuts or income generation is needed to plug the council's five-year budget gap.

Cllr Rozenberg warned the council could be "heading for bankruptcy" if officers cannot find these extra savings or planned savings are not made.

Cllr Thomas said councillors had raised similar concerns 10 years ago but the council had been able to balance its books.

The budget plans, which also include an increase in council tax, were approved after Conservative members of the committee voted in favour.

Members of the public can have their say on the plans in a consultation that will run from January 7 to February 3.

Additional reporting by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.