Published 7th January 2021

More investment into caring for our most vulnerable children and adults, local housing, economic recovery, the green agenda, and a major focus on fixing pavements and roads are at the centre of the council’s proposed budget for 2021/22 (items 7, 8 and 9, Cabinet, 7 January).

Despite the Government suggesting in the local finance settlement that councils raise council tax by 5%, cabinet councillors will consider increasing council tax by 1.99%, with a further 2% for adult social care (3.99% in total). Southend Council has the second lowest council tax in south Essex. Thurrock Council has the lowest.

The proposed rise is 73p a week extra for full-rate households in a ‘band A’ home, 86p for ‘band B’, 98p for ‘band C’ and £1.10 for ‘band D’ (70% of Southend-on-Sea Borough properties are in band A to C) and will help protect our essential frontline services, fund an extra £3.6m to meet additional demand in children’s and adult social care services, including £590,000 for looked-after children, £150,000 to help drive the recruitment of local foster carers and £25,000 for the reintroduction of a small school uniform grant for eligible children under exceptional circumstances.

Savings and new income will raise £4.15m and £2.5m of reserves will be used to set a balanced net base budget of £133.42m for 2021/22. The council will also need to meet an expected budget gap of a further £20.4m up to 2026 depending on anticipated government cuts.

It is also proposed that £21m is added to the council’s main capital investment programme and a further £29m to be added subject to being affordable and deliverable, making an ambitious but realistic and deliverable investment programme of £169m from 2021 to 2026. This includes £53 million investment for the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) that will be used to improve council homes in the Borough over the next five years and continue to deliver new affordable council housing.

Car parking charges from 1 April 2021 will be simplified, with zones introduced, and some charges increasing along the central seafront but decreasing in other areas across the Borough. These changes coincide with the introduction of the Southend Pass, which will allow local residents to park for 3 hours in any zone for just 28p a day or £8.50 a month.

Labour’s Ian Gilbert, leader of the council, says: “Huge cuts to local government finance in previous years means that the vast majority of our funding for services now comes from council tax, business rates and other local income sources such as parking and other fees and charges. However, this budget shows that despite the significant challenges we face with these cuts and also the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we will continue to provide good quality services for those who most need them, in an era when demands on our services are ever-increasing. In common with most councils, we have seen a huge increase in the costs associated with looked-after children, and continued pressure on our adult social care budget.”

For the first time ever, the council’s tax base, the figure used to calculate the council’s revenue budget has decreased due to the impact of COVID-19 and associated council tax support required. This follows on from many years of Government cuts, which has seen the main grant the council receives from Government reduce from £64m in April 2011 to an estimated £6.1m in April 2021, a cut of around 90%. The main Government grant received next year will therefore account for less than four and a half percent of the council’s net budget, as opposed to fifty percent of it in 2011.

Cllr Gilbert adds: “We need to build a financially sustainable future for our borough, and therefore we need to be looking at all areas of our budget to identify how we can deliver services in an even more efficient manner but also make difficult choices about what we can provide and at what level. Therefore we are looking into a range of medium term reviews and will look to deliver these plans over the next two to five years.”

“At the same time we are faced with dealing with the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated costs and loss of income from that, and our ageing population and having to look after more and more vulnerable people. Over 60% (£135M) of our gross budget is invested directly into children and learning, health and adult social care and our cost pressures in these areas continue to rise.”

“The recently announced £1bn for social care and £300m social care grant is welcomed but it should be noted that the expectation from Government – and as the chancellor announced as part of the spending review – is that councils with social care responsibility raise local council tax by the full amount possible which is 5%. However, we do not believe that is the right thing to do, and although we must raise council tax, we propose the rise is 3.99%, so 2% specifically for adult social care, and 1.99% for council tax.”

“Alongside this, we must also continue to do the basics for our local residents by maintaining and investing in our roads and pavements, supporting business, ensuring children get the best start in life and keeping Southend-on-Sea an attractive place for residents, businesses and visitors.”

“We are committed to doing all of this, but local people must know that we face some very difficult choices ahead. As a council we have already delivered significant savings over the last decade and clearly the task of making further cuts gets tougher each year, particularly in the context of a global pandemic that has had major impacts locally.”

Within the investment and savings proposals there is the creation of 29 full time equivalent (FTE) council employee posts and the proposed deletion of approximately 38 FTE posts. Cllr Gilbert, says: “Within the proposed budget there is the creation of roles and the deletion of others. Where there are areas for staff savings these will firstly target vacant posts, interim arrangements, agency cover and fixed term contracts and every effort will be made to avoid compulsory redundancies as part of implementing these budget proposals, and as per our policies we will work to ensure that any staff identified at risk from the proposed staffing restructures can be redeployed where appropriate.”  The Council’s policies on managing organisational change, redeployment and redundancy will be followed accordingly.  Consultations with staff and Trade Unions will continue throughout the budget development and implementation process.

The draft budget will be considered by the council’s cabinet on Thursday 14th January, the council’s three scrutiny committees at the start of February, with the final budget to be considered at Full Council on Thursday 25th February.

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