Council tax is set to rise as part of a bid to plug a gap in Cambridgeshire County Council’s funding, but there are warnings there are still “stark and unpalatable” decisions to be made.
On February 5 the council will meet to agree its budget for the coming year. It will need to agree on proposals to fill a £13.164 million gap in its budget.
According to the council’s business plan: “The council still has to make some stark and unpalatable choices but we are pushing at all boundaries to ensure that we are still able to fulfil our statutory duties and protect the most vulnerable.”
The Conservatives, who control the council, say tax is likely to rise, but the council will also look to other areas, like restructuring payments through their minimum revenue provision policy (negotiating longer periods to pay for large projects and infrastructure), and through using cash gained through the council’s “smoothing reserve” to make up the funds.
A budget amendment proposed by council leader Steve Count says the smoothing reserve, introduced as part of last year’s budget, has formed a “cornerstone” of budget plans and will contribute another £9.1 million towards next year’s budget. The council has already spent £3.4 million on children’s services.
The Conservatives also say they will use the Minimum Revenue Provision policy to “top up” the transformation budget by £4.764 million. They say this will help them “avoid the need to make unpalatable cuts” to services. It will also help add £1.336 million towards supporting essential frontline services in next year’s budget.
Cambridgeshire residents will see a five per cent increase in council tax, of which two per cent is ringfenced for adult social care.
This will add an extra £1.20 a week to the bill of an average Band D council taxpayer.
Council leader Cllr Steve Count said increasing council tax is not his preferred solution to balancing the budget, but noted that there needs to be more funding for the county from central government.
Cllr Count said: “I think it is important to recognise that we will not be stopping our commercial programme. The public expects us to be as efficient as possible.
“We, as Conservatives, want to keep tax nationally and locally at a minimum. As it stands at the moment, Cambridgeshire is disproportionately affected by a lack of funding, and that needs to be readdressed.”
In the Conservative amendment, Cllr Count says the council will continue to “actively lobby” for a new funding formula from central government, which they say is “destined to come in for the following financial year”.
Cllr Count also said there is a commitment to avoid cutting services, both this year and in the coming years.
Lib Dem leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha said she “wished they didn’t need to put up council tax” but said the increase is “very much needed” to help make sure local services would continue to be delivered.
In a Lib Dem amendment to the budget, Cllr Nethsingha calls for a simplification of local government in Cambridgeshire. Cllr Nethsingha said money could be saved on rationalising council staff and premises. She also said the council should stay in Shire Hall, rather than splashing out on new premises in Alconbury (where they are due to move in 2020).
Cllr Count, however, says it could cost the council between £30 million and £40 million not to move, and that the overall savings of the new premises would help them in coming years.
Last year, the county council imposed three days’ mandatory leave on council staff - the equivalent of a 1.2 per cent pay cut.
The Conservative amendment says the council wants to thank staff for their hard work and says they are committed to making sure the same measures are not required again this year.
Labour, however, go further, saying it is “outrageous” that workers’ pay was taken like this. In their budget amendment, the Labour group say it is not too late to reverse this, and that it needn’t have happened in the first place.
Labour leader Cllr Joan Whitehead said the council is in “dire straits” with some core services desperately needing more funds. Cllr Whitehead said Labour would be tabling an amendment calling for “cuts” to education budgets and children and young people’s services to be “reversed”.
Cllr Count said he is “disappointed” that Cllr Whitehead spoke of cuts, saying there is a difference between “a change in spending versus a change in outcomes”. Cllr Count said that, despite reduced spending in some areas, services are still being provided more efficiently than before.
The Conservative amendment makes provision for extra spending on the county’s roads. Cllr Count said they had listened to the public, and that there were significant calls for the county’s road network to be improved.
The amendment reads: “Since the Beast from the East struck last February, we have listened to the public and I am also pleased to announce that, including the additional £18 million that we have set out in our amendment to the budget, we are injecting an additional £28.7 million to bring up the standards of our highways, through proactive treatment and maintenance, on our roads, bridges and footpaths.”
The Lib Dem budget amendment also says the number of committees on the council should be reduced to five, and that committee chairs and vice-chairs should be remunerated at the level recommended by the Independent Remuneration Panel.
Cllr Nethsingha said these measures would save £102,000. Cllr Nethsingha said the Lib Dems would also remove the Area Champion allowance. The Lib Dems say they want to “focus on slimming down the costs of councilors”.
Cllr Count, however, accused the Lib Dems of “playing political games on budget day”, saying the increase in councillors’ allowances had been agreed a year ago, and that they had only been brought up to the average for county councils.
The Lib Dems say they “object strongly” to a council decision to cut a contract providing multi-systemic therapy (MST) to families in crisis.
“We believe the decision to cut this service is wrong in every way,” reads the Lib Dem budget amendment. “This service helps to keep families together and children out of care. At a time when more and more children are coming into care, an outcome which is both tragic for the family concerned and enormously expensive for the family, to be cutting a service which supports families seems deeply misguided.”
The Lib Dems say the decision to withdraw therapy “is wrong for some of our most vulnerable children, but it is also deeply wrong in being another example of the administration failing to support council staff”.
According to their budget amendment, the team who provide MST were encouraged to set up a small company and to transfer council workers’ employment rights only a year ago.
The amendment reads: “They were promised the councils would maintain a contract with the new small business for three years. This council has now taken an opportunity to break that contract, and in effect break the promise they made to their own staff only a year ago.”
Cllr Count said the decision to stop MST had been made through the committee system, and that it had simply not presented the evidence it had been an effective use of council money.