The process of setting the authority’s 2021-22 budget is into its closing stages now, with the cabinet set to give its backing tomorrow on February 9, before it seeks final approval at the full council meeting on Wednesday, February 24.
Ahead of that, the corporate services scrutiny committee – with an invite sent to councillors from all of the other scrutiny groups – took a closer look and challenged the Conservative administration on its plans, which include efficiencies of £8.2million, a council-tax increase of 3.74% and a capital spending programme totalling £291million next year.
The Labour opposition has already claimed that it is a ‘smoke and mirrors budget that moves the majority of difficult decision-making to after the local elections in May’.
At the committee meeting on Monday, February 9, Lib Dem leader, Cllr Jeff Reid, raised concerns about the make-up of the proposed savings.
“What worries me about all of that £8million is that there is not one solid thing there,” he said. “Everything is a review or a look at or a redo.
“The whole thing is we need to save £8million so let’s put something down on paper that says reviews, get it through council then send bills out to people increasing their council tax by 3.74%. It’s all just a wishlist.”
In response, Cllr Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, said: “Every year this administration (in power since May 2017) has delivered on its budget.
“All of the savings here are identified, you’re right to say they are at different stages in their implementation, but there is an understanding and any portfolio holder in the cabinet would be able to give you specifics on any of the savings in there.”
Cllr Reid added: “All in all, the officers have done a good job as usual of pulling the irons out of the fire.
“It’s hard-going though and that £8million is just to get you to the finish line with more to come in the following years (the medium-term plan lists savings of £10.5million and £12.5million in the following two years). At some point, someone is going to have to really get a grasp of this.
“I don’t think you should have gone for the full council tax increase because there’s pressures on our residents that are going to last for years, and we shouldn’t be adding to that burden.”
The Government has said that the referendum threshold for increases in council tax will remain at 2% next year, while authorities will also be able to charge an adult social care precept of up to 3%.
Northumberland ratepayers face a 1.99% general rise, but the care precept will be split over two years ‘to try to soften the impact’, so the overall bill will increase by 3.74% next year and – in theory, depending on what happens in the May elections – 3.24% in 2022-23.
Cllr Anne Dale, an independent, was also worried about the increase in council tax as well as the use of reserves, with a total of £26.6million set to be used from three different pots, although £8.5million of Covid funding is being added to the reserves.
Cllr Oliver said: “Reserves are there for a rainy day and I would probably describe a Covid crisis as a very rainy day. What I will also say is that our reserves are healthy and will remain healthy and we’re prepared for the rainiest day.
“On council tax, I understand what Cllr Dale is saying, it is difficult, many families are struggling and we have tried to our keep council tax increase to a minimum and I haven’t done a detailed study, but I imagine you will find our increase is among the lowest.
“That said, it would be wonderful to have no increase at all, but we’re not in that position.
“What we have to do is do everything we can – and this is what the investment programme is about – to regenerate the economy to make sure we have a really positive climb out of the Covid crisis and that families in the county are in a good position with decent jobs to be able to pay council tax, and us as the local authority will be better funded through that and maybe in future years, we won’t need to put council tax up at all.”
But Cllr Dale was not convinced, saying: “What I’m trying to say is that our revenue account pays for everything, the things that residents need and require. What we want to do is provide a really good service.
“The more you use reserves and the more you use revenue to pay for the capital, the more you’re going to cut the revenue.
“Over a long period of time, that’s what’s been happening with this council, you’ve put costs over to the parishes and in the meantime, you’ve been putting up council tax. What I’m most concerned about is the burden on the people.”
However, Cllr Oliver and council leader Glen Sanderson had both highlighted in their introductions to the meeting that the 2021-22 gross revenue budget contains millions of pounds more in key areas – £5.4million for adult social care, £8.5million for children’s services and £3.1million for local services.
They noted that this was in line with what residents wanted, as expressed through the responses to the public consultation that was held on the budget, although Labour’s Cllr Lynne Grimshaw called for the responses to be shared. Cllr Oliver said a report would be circulated to all members ahead of the final budget meeting at the end of the month.