County council's action plan to close £145m budget gap to be scrutinised

A budget gap of £145m over the next four years facing West Sussex County Council is set to be discussed by members later this week.

Pieter Montyn said his committee would closely examine financial plans
Pieter Montyn said his committee would closely examine financial plans

Even factoring in a council tax rise of 4.99 per cent next year and 1.99 per cent increases in subsequent years the authority still has to find £92.3m.

A total of £39.4m of savings have been identified, leaving a budget gap of £52.9m.

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The county council is facing increased demand for services as well as extra cost pressures at the same time as reduced levels of funding from central Government.

Its medium term financial strategy for the next four years is set to be scrutinised by members of the performance and finance select committee on Friday (October 5).

Pieter Montyn, chairman of the committee, said: “West Sussex County Council is not alone in having to look extremely carefully at the money we spend and how we can continue to deliver services.

“Finances in local government are in a very difficult place at the moment due to continued decreasing funding from central government coupled with unprecedented demand on services, in particular social care. The committee will closely examine the financial strategy and provide comments to the cabinet for their consideration.”

The medium term financial strategy sets out the financial outlook for the council and informs the delivery of services and priorities for 2019/20.

Given the importance of the meeting, which is held in public, all 70 county councillors have been invited to attend and will have the opportunity to ask questions.

Since 2010 the council has lost core funding from the Government amounting to £145m and by the end of this financial year will have made £216m worth of budget savings.

As part of work on next year’s budget a survey was carried out to gauge residents’ views on what the council’s priorities should be and what level council tax should be set at.

A total of 2,136 responses were received to the main survey, with the most common priority selected being a ‘strong, safe and sustainable place’ followed by a ‘council that works for the community’.

In previous years ‘keeping you safe’ has been the top priority.

Of three options presented on council tax 44 per cent backed an increase between 2.1 and 4.98 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for two per cent and 31 per cent in favour of a maximum rise of 4.99 per cent.

Common themes for what is important to respondents were improving highways, carefully considering areas used for development and improving infrastructure to ensure services are available for new and existing residents.

Key findings from the 253 who took part in the children and young people’s survey include looking after/enhancing the environment, more careful consideration of new development, improving existing infrastructure and providing more social and leisure facilities for younger and older residents alike.

In the current financial year the county council is facing an estimated overspend of £5.7m which is being mitigated through expenditure controls such as a vacancy freeze being imposed and only essential posts being filled.

According to an officers’ report: “The funding squeeze from government and spending pressures we face are expected to continue over the life of this strategy.

“The emphasis on savings is therefore to ensure the county council copes with these pressures and continues to drive though plans to achieve even greater efficiency and cost reductions in order to protect front line services and council priorities.

“However, the scale of the challenge we continue to face demands that more radical alternatives need to be considered.”