Crunch decisions and huge challenges facing Peterborough City Council in 2022

Local Democracy reporter Rob Alexander looks at the big political issues facing Peterborough City Council in 2022...

Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 6:43 am
Updated Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 6:48 am
A recent Extraordinary Full Council meeting.

In a year that has been utterly dominated with just two issues: balancing the budget and paying for the COVID crisis, 2021 appears to have had few if any bright moments to report about at Peterborough City Council.

The coming year – 2022 – will require an enormous effort on the part of all 60 councillors to ensure the budget is balanced in time for 11 March.If the unthinkable happens, and the council does not balance the books, it runs the very real possibility of having a s.114 order placed upon them by central government which effectively means control of their finances will be taken out of their hands and passed to Westminster.

It has happened before,  in neighbouring Northamptonshire in 2018; and if it does happen in Peterborough the consequences for all the high-profile projects the council wants to promote could be nothing short of disastrous.Cabinet Member for Finance, Cllr Andy Coles has gone on record saying that he will “…do everything in his power to try and deliver a balanced budget in time for March”.

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PCC leader Wayne Fitzgerald with Cabinet member for finance Cllr Andy Coles with the new PCC Budget proposals pictured in October.

The consequences of that have seen many important services ‘temporarily suspended’ to save money, including the Key Theatre, Werrington Leisure Centre and possibly even the city’s libraries.Back in June 2021, external auditors Ernst and Young reported that they were “…seriously concerned” about the local authority’s financial position; yet the council’s Audit Committee Chairman, Cllr David Over commented: “Over the last 25 years of audit reports we’ve had 23 of them showing a weakness in terms of financial statements... and yet, we’re still here.”

The simple fact is that the council has a legal obligation to balance the budget on 11 March 2022.

In the run-up to that date the council will bring in ‘experts’ in the New Year to help them ‘consult’ on how best to save more moneyHowever, the Labour, LibDem and Green Groups have been quick to point out that these ‘experts’ will be costing upwards of £900 per day plus expenses, and that maybe five or six will be needed daily.

And if Peterborough City Council were to balance the budget, as Cllr Coles hopes, what will that mean for services for the people of Peterborough in 2022, and the years immediately after that?

Certainly, we can expect more cutbacks. Cllr Coles has said the council has “…a difficult mountain to climb in terms of saving money… but needs the Capital budget to get below £80 million if it is to achieve financial sustainability by 2023/24.”

In the past, Peterborough City Council has published Capital Budgets in excess of £160 million, so to achieve something in the region of half that amount there are definitely some difficult times ahead.Capital projects, unless privately match-funded will be the first to suffer, and many of the once-hoped for projects in and around the city may have to be put on hold, at least for the foreseeable future.

This comes with the news that inflation at 5.1% is at its highest level in ten years, the increase in National Insurance contributions by 1.25% to 13.25% will take effect from April 2022 onwards, and fuel costs are expected to rise by as much as 50% during the year.It is true that the National Minimum Wage rate will rise from £8.91 per hour to £9.50 from 1 April 2022, but along with taxation, inflation, fuel bill rises and cuts to their local services, the outlook for most Peterborian’s is pretty bleak.And then there is COVID.

It’s highly unlikely that we will see the end of the pandemic in 2022 with a return to ‘normal’  as each new strain of the virus presents new challenges.

The NHS, already pushed to breaking point in terms of fatigued or infected staff as stretched finances, will once more have to bear the brunt of the problems.

The Government has announced that £60 million will be provided to local authorities across the country to support the adult social care response to COVID-19 in January, and the Adult Social Care - Omicron Support Fund is on top of the £388 million infection control and testing fund announced earlier in the year to prevent infections and provide testing in the care sector.On 6 July 2021, the UK government published the Health and Care Bill 2021-22, which details plans for changes to NHS rules and structures in England with central government wanting the changes in place by April 2022.

Despite the funding announcements, health care services currently borne by the council will only increase the drain on local authority finances in the coming year, with additional help from central government unlikely to meet demand either in the public or the private sector.

Local elections in the United Kingdom will be held on 5 May 2022.

These will include elections for all London borough councils, and for all local authorities in Wales and Scotland. Most seats in England were last up for election in 2018 and in Scotland and Wales in 2017.

In Peterborough, where there is currently no overall control of the city council, 18 of the 60 councillors’ seats will be up for election.The city of Peterborough has long been considered something of a barometer for how the country is thinking – do you remember 2019 when we had no less than five elections in one year?

The 2022 Local elections promise as much intrigue, if not more.Still, when the budget has been balanced, the cuts have been made, the taxes have been taken, the pandemic is paid for, and the elections are over… at least we can all celebrate with a four-day public holiday in early-June for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.