The Budget Committee has been meeting to consider its response to the Mayor's budget proposals - the fourth and final budget round of Boris's first mayoral term.
Last week we questioned the transport commissioner, chairman of LFEPA, deputy mayor and senior representatives of the Metropolitan Police. Yesterday it was the Mayor's turn in the spotlight.
Council Tax Freeze
The headline news is that the council tax precept is to be frozen for the fourth year in a row, leaving the budget exactly where we found it after Livingstone lost power in 2008. In real terms inflation makes this a 12% cut as opposed to the 153% increase that occurred under the Livingstone regime when costs were allowed to let rip. It is a considerable achievement and almost as impressive is the fact that it is no longer debated by the major parties. We can expect to see alternative proposals from the other groups which also leave the council tax frozen. Indeed the Lib Dem's Mike Tuffrey was asking Boris for a council tax cut yesterday - thus stealing the question that I usually pose - so coalitionism is clearly having a positive effect on our partners.
The opposition are keen to discuss the changing number of police officers and other crimefighters in the capital. Facing a difficult budget gap, the police are fighting to maintain officer numbers whilst making savings in support services, procurement and property. A £30 million saving from the LFEPA budget has been offered up to help them bridge the gap this year, but further government funding is required and negotiations with the Home Office are still ongoing.
Boris seemed quite upbeat on the prospects for a successful conclusion when we saw him yesterday. Senior police officers were also positive last week, with Acting Deputy Commissioner Cressida Dick maintaining that services would not be harmed and the crime fighting capacity of the MPS would be kept up. The aim is to have some 32,300 fully warranted officers in post in March - 1,000 more than when Boris came to power, but a fall on more recent numbers.
The Met is one of the few police forces still recruiting new officers and these are being drawn largely from the ranks of PCSOs and special constables. The number of specials has grown over the mayor's term but the promotion of good PCSOs - which none of us want to stifle - is leaving vacancies which will take time to fill. The police have undertaken to recruit to those vacancies but some may be unfilled by May, leading to concerns for the future should the mayor's priorities change.
Other question marks hang over the Met budget, with the cost of the August riots still not fully clear and big bills expected for policing the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Olympic Games.
Opposition parties are seeking to make fares a key issue in the coming election. Livingstone has made his usual promise to cut fares if he is elected, but the promise extends no further than the coming year and he has form for freezing fares in election years then jacking them back up in subsequent budgets.
Labour are claiming that TfL has a massive underspend which could fund a fares cut, however TfL pointed out that they have failed to consider cuts to the grant from government and pressures caused by higher passenger numbers - the Tube had its busiest year ever in 2011, and there was a 50 year high for bus passengers. Deputy Chairman Daniel Moylan states that "There is no fairy money under a toadstool!". Perhaps Labour's 'Fares Fair' campaign should be renamed 'Fares Fairy'...
Within TfL Project Horizon is delivering cuts to bureaucracy by combining functions between TfL and London Underground. The number of directors has been cut by 25% as have the budgets for back office activities. At last the combining of the various transport providers under the TfL umbrella is delivering economies of scale.
Under Brian Coleman, LFEPA has made considerable savings and has even helped to bail out the police budget this year. Reserves have been cut to £24 million which we were assured is sufficient to cover unexpected costs. Training is being contracted out and this is expected to deliver further cost reductions.
The impetus of a tough budget round has pushed GLA functional bodies into serious consideration of shared services, achieving economies of scale right across the group. At TfL the progress is mainly being achieved between its own departments and transport providers. Within the police service sharing is largely being done across the Greater London boundary, with cooperation from other neighbouring forces. However there is still much to be done to achieve economies across the whole group - for example, the MPA now audits the GLA as well as the police, the GLA now supports LFEPA meetings as well as London Assembly meetings. Boris has made it clear that this is one of his top priorities for the coming year.
As the budget debate heats up, the most contentious issues are revealing themselves - council tax, fares, police numbers and bureaucracy.