Over the next few weeks Councillors up and down the country will be debating and setting their council budgets for the year to come. It is a busy time and Is not made any easier by the pressure on local government budgets everywhere.

Despite the huge reductions in Government funding, in Reading the picture is more stable than in previous years. That has only been possible with a huge amount of work behind the scenes to reduce costs in order to protect the vital public services that so many people rely on.

We have taken a close look at our buildings. We have reduced the number of buildings we manage and are making better use of those we still run. For example, in the past year we have opened community hubs in south Reading and in Southcote. These are flexible, shared community spaces with library facilities, a children’s centre and community spaces, meaning we can sell the vacated buildings and save the cost of running them. We are improving the Town Hall and Museum to make much more use of the space, including the new Register Office ceremonial suite, which has meant we have closed Yeomanry House and are selling it, saving the cost of running the building and giving us a Capital receipt.

We are also making better use of technology. By offering more online payments, we can work more efficiently and save money.

Reading is already a successful town, but we want to boost the local economy further to support local businesses at this difficult time. Last summer we re-opened Henry I’s historic Royal Abbey. It is already proving to be a major visitor attraction, bringing more people into the town. We are also backing Reading UK’s plans for two proposed Business Improvement Districts 2019-24 (BID) for the town centre, including a new one for the Abbey area.

Berkshire has again been selected by the Government for its business rate pilot. This year, it means the council will retain 75% of business rates collected in Reading. 50% of that total will be passed to the Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership to fund key strategic infrastructure improvements which will boost the local economy, like the new bus lanes along the A33.

For its part, as part of a three year budget plan, the council will be proposing a major capital programme which will see investment in new homes, new schools, improved transport infrastructure and modern new leisure facilities and swimming pools. The council’s capital programme is funded from a combination of Capital Receipts, borrowing and successful bids for grants. This money cannot be used to run day to day services.

We know the lack of affordable housing remains a major issue for the town. Work on the new Council housing scheme at Conwy Close in Tilehurst is progressing, with the first residents already moving in. The Government has said that it will finally relax the rules on building Council housing, but despite the Chancellor announcing this in November we still await the details. We are ready to take forward more housing schemes as soon as the government allows this.

As a council we are responding to Reading’s needs and investing in the town, while at the same time setting a balanced budget as we are legally obliged to. That is no easy task when Government funding for the Council will have been cut from nearly £58 million between 2010 and 2020. The Council’s Government grant now stands at under £2 million and will disappear entirely by next year.

The Government has promised a long overdue spending review to determine how it will fund local councils in the future. The findings of that review need to recognise the role local government plays in providing vital local services. We can only hope they listen to the words of Lord Porter, the Conservative Chairman of the Local Government Association, who said only last month: “The upcoming Spending Review is absolutely crucial for councils. If we truly value our local services then we have to be prepared to pay for them. Fully funding councils is the only way they will be able to keep providing the services which make a difference to people’s lives, such as caring for older and disabled people, protecting children, building homes, fixing roads and collecting bins." The Chancellor said that austerity was coming to an end. It would be good to see evidence of that.