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Pandemic Recovery Budget Set Out in the Face of Huge Financial Pressures

Published: 3rd February 2021 16:48

Cheshire West and Chester Council will be setting its budget against a backdrop of financial uncertainty caused by the COVID -19 pandemic, the increasing cost of care and continuing delays to national funding reforms for Local Government, which will lead to some difficult decisions for the Council.

The Council faces a revenue funding gap of £30m in 2021-22 and a further £53.4m in 2022-25.

Over the four-year budget planning period, core central government grant funding is forecast to reduce by £10.7m, with a temporary increase of £8.8m in 2021-22 reflecting the significant short-term pressures on the Council relating to COVID-19.

The budget reflects the Council's Stronger Futures plan for recovery and renewal, which will tackle the poverty emergency, in addition to building on key Council priorities in the current context of the pandemic. The plan is ambitious and will tackle the climate emergency, support new jobs and skills, create a greener, fairer economy, protect arts and cultural programmes and ensure children and young people have the best start in life.

There is an expectation from Government that all councils with adult social care responsibilities will raise their council tax by an additional 3% via an adult social care precept.

The rising costs and significant demand for this service mean that council tax is expected to rise by 4.99 per cent overall. This will be made up of a basic increase of 1.99 per cent and a three per cent precept.

This rise equates to an extra £1.51 a week for residents in a band D property.

The three per cent element will generate £5.8m, which will only partially address the cost pressures faced in adult social care in the borough. The Council will actually increase its investment in social care by nearly £12m in 2021-22.

Councillor Carol GahanCouncillor Carol Gahan Councillor Carol Gahan, Cabinet Member for Finance and Legal said, "The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the Council, who alongside our public sector and voluntary sector partners, have been at the forefront of the response.

"The cost of providing PPE, paying social care providers and accommodating homeless people to keep them safe during lockdown, along with significant reductions in planned income from Council services, especially our leisure services, have made the financial situation even more challenging this year.

 "We've also been unable to carry out many of the savings planned for this year because of the disruption caused by the pandemic, and the subsequent impact it has had on all our lives."

The Council ran a public consultation on the budget proposals before Christmas when 524 people gave their view through questionnaires, ideas and suggestions sent via digital engagement, emails and via an online Cabinet question time event.

Councillor Louise GittinsLeader of the CounciLeader of the Council, Councillor Louise Gittins said, "We know times are extremely challenging for everyone now, and we never take a decision to increase council tax lightly. We are asking people to pay a little bit more so we can all get through the coming years together and nobody gets left behind.

"We do have a duty to provide services which protect and support those members of our community who need it most: our children in care, older people, people fleeing domestic abuse and those economically impacted by the pandemic.

"The Council understands the financial challenges that some of our residents face, particularly about the payment of council tax. Despite a significant funding gap, we have chosen to protect our council tax reduction scheme, which supports residents with council tax bills.

"Our discretionary hardship fund and Help in Emergencies for Local People (HELP) scheme, offers local welfare assistance including residents in crisis or those with exceptional needs.

"We have also created a COVID response budget, part of which will be available to fund anti-poverty initiatives and provide support to residents suffering financial hardship as a result of the pandemic."

Despite the financial challenges faced by the Council it still has plans to deliver some major regeneration and commercial developments in 2022, using its capital budget, which is different from the budget which funds frontline services. This will help support high streets and businesses to recover over the coming years and help create vibrant city and town centres across the borough.

The Council continues to deliver some services via its Council-owned companies where they offer the best solution to deliver cost-effective services. However, these companies are also expected to experience the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on their businesses, at least into 2021-22.

The Overview and Scrutiny Committee will be asked to make recommendations to Cabinet on the budget which meets on 10 February. Final budget proposals will be considered at the Council's annual budget setting meeting on 25 February.

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At 19:56 on 7th February 2021, Steph commented:
This is a joke, for most folks in the real world the past 12 months have been really difficult, the vast majority of the private sector staff gave either been furloughed on 80% pay or have had to take double digit paycuts whilst the public sector have continued at 100% pay and full contributions to their defined benefit pensions, when is the council going to come into the 21st century and tackle its pension deficit by moving its staff onto DC pensions like the rest of the tax paying population, that process would completely remove the need to increase the council tax and would out the money back into our pockets.. oh and my green bin might get emptied then,,,
At 20:03 on 7th February 2021, Steph commented:
Oh and while I am on a role, why is there no process for opting out,I mean what improvement in service am I going to see for my 5% increase in payments... the government is quite rightly cutting grants because they have historically been too big, the councils should cut their expenditure, improve the service and get themselves right sized for their budgets,,,,where the hell am I going to find an additional 5% when my year on year income is falling....
At 14:17 on 10th February 2021, Bob commented:
Only 1.51/week increase! Or £72.48/year. What do we get for it? not a lot. Now the council would like to cut rubbish collection. Also, garden waste to be cut to between March and September, and we will probably have to pay for that as well!
The only way to change this will be to vote the present administration out of office and hope that a change would improve things!
Anthony A
At 09:32 on 11th February 2021, Anthony A commented:
I think it's too simplistic to suggest that simply swapping a red council for a blue one will improve things. Every council is faced with stark choices in the face of reduced central government funding, soaring adult social care bills and the extra pressures brought on by Covid. A Tory one may not choose to cut X but they will, instead, have to cut Y - one way or another there will be losers. (I will be one if a green bin charge comes in).

I agree with Steph that final salary pensions are the elephant in the room. Figures out just this week from the ONS show that unfunded government liabilities for such schemes amount to £1. 2 trillion - a bill our children and grandchildren will have to pick up on top of the current national debt of over £1 trillion and unfunded state pension liabilities of £4.8 trillion. Final salary schemes are anachronistic but, even if a government had the guts to tackle the issue, it isn't going to solve councils' immediate budget problems.

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