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FINANCE - BUSY TIMES AHEAD

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Planning for the future is hard, says Richard Harbord, managing director, Hammersmith & Fulham LBC. ...
Planning for the future is hard, says Richard Harbord, managing director, Hammersmith & Fulham LBC.

Most councils have made a reasonably accurate forecast of their likely financial position for 2001-02 and finance directors are keeping a close eye on a range of government announcements during the next few weeks.

The imminent announcement of the results of the comprehensive spending review are key to the future resources of local government. The review may hold clues to the future of some services and there is the possibility of new funds and resources - for instance to assist with e-government. Without dedicated funds for this there will be little hope of implementation in the timescale the government has indicated.

There could be extra funds for best value, as recent pronouncements have indicated the costs of best value are much higher than was first estimated (LGC, 30 June). This is particularly apparent in best value reviews. Aside from the costs of audit and inspection, all good consultation costs money and the number of reviews multiplies this.

Assuming there are no further delays, later this month should see the publication of the green paper on local government finance. The recent announcements on the pilot of the single capital pot are interesting. The freeing up of capital controls is welcome. Most councils have had asset management plans for some services, particularly education, but the comprehensive asset management envisaged will take considerable time to get up and running.

Councils are hoping for more freedom from restrictions on borrowing and investment and there will be consultation on wide-ranging changes for several other issues.

Then there is the progress of the Local Government Bill. This will have a major effect on the way officers and members interact and will see a considerable change of role for directors of finance and chief executives.

There is still discussion surrounding local government structure reform. London mayor Ken Livingstone wants to see fewer London councils and many districts would like unitary status. If the green paper suggests revenue collections moving to counties, further reorganisation could be on the cards.

Hammersmith & Fulham LBC's favourable report from the Improvement and Development Agency highlighted that we lacked a 10 to15-year vision for the area. This would be beneficial but unrealistic.

Chief officers are concerned with next year's budget and forecasting those for the next year or two. Capital programming will be set to three to five years in the future as will the new community strategy, while most service plans and community plans already are. Against all this and the options being discussed by the government I cannot contemplate a satisfactory vision for the next 10 to15 years. The fact we plan as well as we do is a tribute to the professionalism of all those involved.

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