England & Wales, Scotland Finance

Top of the class: budgeting the Bristol way

Image by Mizianitka from Pixabay

The process by which Bristol formed its 2020/21 Budget was best in class. Don’t just take my word for it. In late 2019, the Head of Consultancy of the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) described Bristol’s process as best practice and urged other local authorities, “to follow Bristol’s lead”.

And in fact in September 2020 (if you cut out the Covid costs) Bristol City Council is achieving almost exactly what was expected, even down to a large cost overrun in Adult Social Care – we even got the estimate of said overrun pretty close!

So what is it that Bristol is doing right? As usual, it is a mixture of people and process. Dedicated people including the S151 Officer (her officers), departmental heads plus a small group of councillors working to a special form of scrutiny, led by me, a councillor. It was my third year by then, I was entrusted as chair. I planned it to be my last year before stepping down in May 2020, exhausted and due a decent holiday, so that I could then write my book. Some of that didn’t happen.

Before the process, some more on dedicated people; I viewed my time on council as a marathon. I was entering the final miles and actually speeding up: more effective, better-respected perhaps, working even harder and wanting to leave my legacy. That legacy was not an edifice nor an organisation, it was to be a top-of-the-class budget process that could be followed by others.

The process started in September, setting meetings that followed a rhythm: a few in private, then producing a paper for public consumption, public discussion at Resources or Overview Scrutiny and then back to private meetings. The beat was set, two months on medium term and capital plans, two months on scrutiny of the assumptions of the budget itself and then once Cabinet (with a Mayor) had issued their draft budget (with the challenged and thus more robust assumptions) then a month on the final task; to explain it to Full Council so all seventy councillors could take an informed vote late in February.

We did not challenge the budget, we challenged the assumptions. That took politics right out of it. I was (am) an opposition councillor.

So with a mindset to challenge the assumptions I spent most of Autumn 2019 attending other scrutiny and cabinet meetings, asking questions, learning, challenging their assumptions and feeding this back in to our finance task and finish group as we now called ourselves. This was an immense amount of work and is probably unsustainable every year but it is half way from a just budge-it along budget to a zero based budget which as we know is virtually a once in a lifetime event.

So members of finance task and finish became experts in adult social care issues and SEND and we joined up the thinking. We realised better outcomes for SEND teenagers reduces adult social care (ASC) and other costs five or ten years on. We realised that capital investment in housing paid dividends. A colleague proposed we build extensions on some council houses of foster carers who wanted to have a bigger family and so help increase placements into foster care. Indeed, investment in other forms of specialist housing has remarkable fast paybacks. Those are just a few examples.

And the informed vote in February 2020? We obviously weren’t aware of the full impacts of Covid back then but we did know that despite everything Cabinet still hadn’t allowed enough for ASC costs. Whether it’s motivational for a department to be beaten into submission each year I don’t know. Nevertheless, our feedback into Full Council was that the budget is not bad except the assumptions for ASC which will be about £10m adrift. And as I write this the Period 4 forecast is showing a forecast £8m overspend (after Covid costs are subtracted).

By March 2020 I could see the finish line – I was sprinting, if a 61-year-old can do such a thing – and then the finish line was moved; it felt like another seven miles. So, I never did step down, I didn’t get that holiday. But I did write my book, and there’s much more in it that local authorities can learn from.

Cllr Clive Stevens’ book ‘After The Revolution: Lessons from Local Government on Designing a Dynamic Democracy’  is available now. Pre-signed copies can be bought at Tangent Books, and use the discount code LGIU10 for 10% off – postage is free to UK destinations.

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