Somerset Council’s Executive has agreed plans to bridge a £100m budget gap for 2024/25, welcoming steps that will see several key services protected.
Councillors were, however, given a stark warning that the broken model for funding local government and the Government’s refusal to allow a 9.99% Council Tax increase undermines the authority’s immediate sustainability after 2024/25.
Last month it was announced the Council would need to apply to the Government for emergency financial support, while also considering “unprecedented” and “heart-breaking” steps to bridge a £100m funding gap, including reductions to services.
At yesterday’s (7 February) Executive meeting it was confirmed that some of these services will be protected by working in partnership with City, Town and Parish Councils.
This includes Somerset’s CCTV service, Yeovil Recreation Ground, Taunton Visitor Information Centre, the Ranger Service in the south, and locking parks in Wellington, Minehead and Taunton overnight.
Talks with Somerset’s waste contractor will continue before any savings linked to closing household waste recycling centres are taken forward.
Executive also passed amendments to withdraw or change a number of savings proposals to allow alternative funding models to be explored. These include savings linked to highways maintenance, RNLI lifeguard provision, school crossing patrols, and savings linked to important democratic functions, such as Scrutiny committees.
Cllr Bill Revans, Leader of Somerset Council, said:
It is clear the current model of funding local government is broken, and this means we have had to consider heart-breaking and unpalatable cuts to services we greatly value but simply cannot afford.
We vowed to do everything in our power to find alternative ways of funding these and I have to thank our city, town and parish councils for the way they have stepped up. We will continue to explore all options to minimise the impacts on our communities.
Executive also heard confirmation that the Council’s request to increase Council Tax by more than 5% has been rejected by Government, while they are still considering the request for a capitalisation direction – where the council is allowed to borrow money or sell assets to pay for day-to-day running costs.
Cllr Revans added:
This is a disappointing decision which will impact on the long-term viability of our council. While no-one wanted to raise council tax, it was the only option we had to address a broken system where our costs are rising faster than our income. We have been prepared to take difficult decisions locally to minimise the impact on our communities – however, we are now reliant on the Government granting a capitalisation direction. This would be another short-term measure and is not the long-term solution which is urgently needed.
Executive voted in support of proposals to balance the budget by making significant savings (with amendments noted), increasing Council Tax by the maximum allowed, selling council assets, and using reserves (a council’s equivalent of savings). It also relies on the Government approving the capitalisation direction.
As reserves and capital funds can only be used once, for future years the Council will need to significantly reduce its budget through a transformation programme to create a leaner, more productive organisation, with fewer staff. The aim will be to keep the number of compulsory redundancies to a minimum by removing vacant posts, reducing the number of agency workers, interims and consultants, and by opening a voluntary redundancy scheme.
The proposals to set a balanced budget will now be considered by Full Council on 20 February.