A major programme of spending £25 million on continuing to restore the county’s roads and increased spending on protecting vulnerable children were amongst the key budget proposals recommended by Cabinet today (December 8). A council tax rise of 1.99% helps provide these much needed investments.
The proposals for 2015/16 have been reached despite an expected £11.2m reduction in government funding and unavoidable growth demands of £20 million, mainly relating to Children’s Services and providing services to elderly adults. There has also been a big increase in demand for school places. With other service pressures this means the Council has to manage with a budget gap of over £31 million just for next year alone.
The large increase in spending on road resurfacing from a previous level of £15 million to a proposed level of £25 million next year has been achieved by bringing forward planned spending from future years.
Outlining the proposals, Martin Tett, Leader of the Council said, "I need to be clear that this is not ‘new money’ but what we have done is listen to feedback from the budget consultation where people said that the state of the county’s roads continues to be one of their top concerns. Therefore we are bringing forward planned capital spending from future years to have a major ‘blitz’ next year. This is sound financial management because it will enable us to contract for work in bulk and also prevent further deterioration of many roads. There will however be some reductions in planned spending in subsequent years to compensate for this.
“Our other key priority is protecting the vulnerable and in particular children's safeguarding and we have invested heavily this year with money from our reserves. From 2015/16 onwards an increase in spending is built into the Children’s Services budget.
“In our very difficult financial situation, the only way we can fund these changes is by reducing budgets in other areas. We've had to make some very difficult decisions with increased charges and cuts both in the ‘back office’ but also in areas that people value but we have no choice.
"We've also reluctantly reached the decision to increase Council tax from a planned 1.5% to 1.99%. This extra increase mirrors the feedback from the budget consultation where seven out of ten residents backed a reasonable increase to protect priority areas. The extra 0.49% increase will generate £1.1 million more to go into Children’s Services. That said, we were equally conscious not to increase Council Tax more than absolutely necessary at a time when many people are still struggling with the everyday cost of living.”
Mr Tett added, "Although we're continuing to make a huge number of internal efficiency measures, inevitably, we've had to propose service reductions to get the books to balance. Examples of these include reduced support for Police Community Safety Officers (PCSOs), less funding for local improvement schemes, reduced support for economic development and reductions in our ‘Supporting People’ service. Not all our proposed reductions have yet been finalised but these demonstrate the reality of how tough things really are."
"The situation would have been much worse had we not already taken difficult decisions like introducing new charges for home to school transport and reducing street lighting. We've also significantly reduced our staff and reformed terms and conditions.”
The belt is set to tighten still further for all councils in the following two years as policies to tackle the national deficit look like continuing whichever party is elected to Government next May. However, County Councils right across the country face unique cost pressures given their responsibility for education, social services and child protection, all of which are seeing a rapid increase in demand at a time when the level of Government Grant is reducing sharply. In Buckinghamshire, there is an urgent need for more school places to cope with a rapidly rising young population. At the other end of the spectrum, an ageing population combined with planned changes particularly as a result of the Care Act will increase demands on council services.
The draft budget will now go for further consideration by the business community and other partner agencies. Over December into early January, it will also be subject to scrutiny by a the County Council’s independent Finance, Performance and Resources Select Committee before Cabinet recommends the final budget to full County Council on 12 February 2015.