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Bristol faces drastic cuts to its education budget after last week's council tax ballot. Simon Caplan reports. ...
Bristol faces drastic cuts to its education budget after last week's council tax ballot. Simon Caplan reports.
Bristol has just completed the largest test of public opinion on local budget issues, outside of an election, ever to be held in the UK. More than 115,000 people - some 40.2% of the electorate - took part in the city's historic referendum, choosing between four levels of council tax. The turnout was 7% higher than in an average local election.
All four budget options were accompanied by information showing how their implementation would affect education spending. All offered increases in education spending in money terms over the current year.
Indeed, the two higher options - for a 6% or 4% rise in tax - offered voters a chance to opt for substantially more spending on schools in real terms. But the two lower options - for a rise of just 2% or a freeze - did not fully cover the costs of inflation, or of passing on the additional education funding provided this year through the standard spending assessment.
This was clearly pointed out to voters - with information outlining the number of teaching jobs that could, at worst, be lost if they opted for 'no increase'. Despite being advised such a freeze would mean a£4.5m reduction in spending, voters plumped overwhelmingly for no increase. Almost 54% supported the freeze option.
So why did Bristol offer a no increase option - and why did it focus attention in its referendum on spending on schools?
First, Bristol has one of the country's higher levels of council tax -£999 for a band D property. It has been frozen for the past two years, but councillors were acutely aware there was a strong demand locally for it to be frozen again. It would have been impossible to have gone into a referendum this year without offering a no increase option - without it both the council and the ballot itself would have lost all credibility.
Second, Bristol's relatively high council tax is a result of its spending on education - 12% above SSA. In simple terms, the city has no other option but to look at education spending.
It may be painful to realise people prefer lower council taxes to higher education spending, but in Bristol that is the reality. The credibility of referendums, and ultimately of local democracy, would be lost if councils did not offer people choices that reflect local opinion - however difficult the outcome might be to deliver.
So what next? The city could use some of the revenue raised as a dividend on the sale of its shares in Bristol International Airport to offset the impact of the council tax freeze. Bristol recently disposed of its 49% shareholding.
It sounds good, but the problem is that it is one-off money. Bristol cannot sell the shares again next year and, once this stop-gap money is exhausted, it may find it has an even bigger problem - a choice between bigger cuts and bigger increases in council tax in 2002-03 and beyond.
This is one of the critical issues to be debated by councillors over the coming weeks and once again demonstrates that delivering truly open and responsive local government is about making hard choices.
Bristol is committed to open and democratic local government, and believes it will emerge stronger because of its honesty and willingness to include the community in the every aspect of the decision-making process.
-Simon Caplan, head of corporate communications, Bristol City Council.
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