Making sense of City Council spending

When David Howarth was leader of Cambridge City Council, he was fond of saying that “policy is expenditure and expenditure is policy” – in other words, a policy without any spending attached isn’t worth much; it’s what the money gets spent on that matters. Although council accounts make pretty dry reading, they are crucial to understanding what’s going on, and how well the council is managing our money. And visualising the numbers can make them a lot easier to digest.

This Thursday’s council meeting, amongst many other things, has to consider where all the money went in the last financial year. The report is here. How did the Council’s actual spending measure up to what it planned? Very broadly, like this:

Council spending is split between revenue and capital. Learned treatises have been written about the difference, but very roughly, revenue spending goes on the day-to-day running of services, and capital spending goes on tangible things that will last a long time, like buildings. So we can see that the revenue spending came in a bit below budget, but the capital spending was massively below budget – a gap of more than £9 million. Almost all of this, the report tells us, was due to “slippage” – in other words things taking longer than planned.

Let’s look into the numbers in a bit more detail. Firstly, revenue. Where does the money go?

One obvious feature here is the negative spending on Customer Services and Resources – this just means that the council gets a net income from this part of its activities, which includes renting out commercial property. Most categories came in fairly close to their budget – though in many cases closer to the original budget than the final one. Strategy clearly had its budget trimmed dramatically during the year. The biggest area of revenue spending was Environmental & Waste Services, which includes one of the services residents care most about – bins.

Now for capital spending. Where did that massive underspend come from?

Most of it came from the Housing Revenue Account. Now we have to start delving into the notes. The biggest single item is £3,045,000 for refurbishing Brandon Court, a sheltered housing scheme in Market Ward, behind the police & fire stations. There’s also £682,000 of fire safety works, which haven’t been done because “risk assessments have taken longer than anticipated”, and £500,000 for refurbishing Roman Court, a sheltered housing scheme in Kings Hedges. Those three items alone account for nearly half the entire capital underspending. While it’s probably better to underspend than overspend, I hope our elected representatives will be keeping a close eye on how these projects are progressing as the year goes on.

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