Spending on adult social care was the major talking point as Northumberland County Council’s budget for the coming year was scrutinised this week.
A special meeting of the authority’s corporate services committee, to which members of the other scrutiny committees were invited, took place on Monday (February 4) to look at the proposed budget for 2019-20 and medium-term financial plan for the next three years.
As previously reported, the three-year plan includes details of £25million of cuts, including £12.8million next year, a total council-tax hike of 3.99 per cent in 2019-20 and capital investment of £589million.
Setting the scene, council leader Peter Jackson said: “We did inherit a council whose budget was significantly out of balance.”
Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services, added: “We are trying to be fair across the county, making sure we invest in all areas of Northumberland.
“We are trying to increase prosperity and that’s the best thing we can do as an administration.”
Coun Jeff Reid, leader of the Lib Dems, raised concerns about the £6.3million of savings coming from the adult services budget next year, comparing it to last year’s plan which suggested just £1.4million would be cut.
“You are relying on the chief executive and adult services to get you out of a hole,” he said. “I believe that continually relying on adult services to close the gap is a mistake.”
Coun Veronica Jones, the relevant cabinet member, said: “Adult services is one-third of the council’s budget and you can’t get away from that.”
“But it’s 50 per cent of the savings,” responded Coun Reid, prompting Coun Oliver to clarify that this is only next year, with it making smaller savings contributions in years two and three of the plan.
Coun Reid said he was not suggesting that this would impact the quality of care provided to older people, but was concerned nonetheless at the size of the cut.
However, the meeting heard that the situation is a little more complicated as, while savings are to be found on several key themes, including ensuring people receive the right care packages, the annual funding for adult services has actually increased by almost £9million. Plus, the council is to receive an additional government grant of £4.1million in 2019-20.
While there were a couple of other questions from other members at the meeting, the vast majority came from Coun Reid.
When his continued probing prompted laughter at one point, he said: “I’m doing the job that I’m paid to do, this is the only chance I’m going to have to ask you questions on this.”
Coun Reid also raised concerns about how Brexit might impact the council’s fleet replacement programme and whether this had been considered. While accepting that the majority of the fleet comes from the UK, he pointed out that not all of the parts would.
Coun Glen Sanderson, cabinet member for local services, said the strength and newness of the fleet would mean that any issues could be overcome and that he wasn’t worried about it.
Coun Malcolm Robinson asked about council tax increasing by the effective maximum of 2.99 per cent (with an additional one per cent rise ring-fenced for adult social care).
Coun Jackson responded: “I would love to be able to present a zero per cent council-tax rise, but the increasing demands are real.”
The budget and medium-term financial plan will go before the full council meeting on Wednesday, February 20, for final approval.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service