County council budget backed by cabinet but concerns voiced over one-off funding for East Sussex

Proposals to raise council tax and cut a subsidy for meals-on-wheels users have received the backing of cabinet members.

County Hall Lewes, East Sussex County Council HQ SUS-150925-134850001
County Hall Lewes, East Sussex County Council HQ SUS-150925-134850001

On Tuesday (January 22), East Sussex County Council’s Conservative-led cabinet met to discuss a number of proposals for the authority’s 2019/20 budget.

The proposals include plans to raise the authority’s share of council tax by 2.99 per cent and find £5.13m of savings in an effort to balance its budget.

The savings proposed include plans to strip back the amount of support the council gives to schools and to completely cut a £438,000 meals-on-wheels subsidy, leaving those who receive the meals responsible for the full cost of the service.

Kicking off the discussion, the council’s lead member for resources David Elkin said: “This report brings together a huge amount of work by officers, partners and members to produce a comprehensive plan to enable East Sussex to reach a balanced budget but with a keen eye on the following two years.

“We have always been open and transparent and know that despite successful lobbying the outcome has been time-limited funding – one-offs.

“Balancing the budget over the next three years still involves extremely difficult savings proposals. However, it is my belief we must bring a degree of certainty in extremely uncertain times.

“This plan, for the next three years, allows us to do that.”

Later in the meeting, Cllr Elkin spoke more about the one-off funding the council expects to receive next year, attributing it to the council’s lobbying of central government.

According to the council, the additional funding – which is expected to come to almost £8.3m in new grants plus an estimated £1.6m from taking part in a 75 per cent business rates pilot scheme – has seen a significant reduction in the amount of cuts the council needs to make.

However, the one-off nature of the funding saw criticisms raised by several opposition group councillors.

Liberal Democrat group leader David Tutt said: “We are looking yet again at a wide range of cuts. I lay the majority of the blame for that at the Government’s feet.

“We have seen relentless attacks on local government, year after year after year.

“I recognise the lobbying that you [Cllr Keith Glazier] and Cllr David Elkin have conducted. I have lobbied myself and I know that Labour have lobbied.

“There have been cross-party attempts to get Government to understand the consequences of their actions on people’s daily lives.

“In spite of all that lobbying, none of us have managed to come back with a sack of gold.”

Cllr Tutt also warned that one-off revenue grants could see larger cuts fall in the coming years, if the funding is not repeated or replaced in the future.

He said: “What you are doing by taking those one-off monies is taking next year from a gap of £5m to almost £18m. In 12 months time you will be sitting in this chamber looking at £18m of further cuts.”

Labour group leader Trevor Webb also raised concerns about the chances for deeper cuts – particularly in children’s safeguarding – in the following two years.

Cllr Webb also raised concerns about the impact of any cuts on Hastings and other areas with high deprivation within the county.

Responding to some of the concerns raised, Conservative council leader Keith Glazier said: “I think we can all agree two things. First and foremost is lobbying has been successful this year and we have got more to do.

“Secondly that one-off money from Government is much more welcome than no money from Government and the way we use it is really important.

“We have been very clear in these papers that they are one-off and therefore they create further problems down the way. It is our next stage of lobbying to ensure the Government are aware of that.”

Cllr Glazier also said he was hopeful that the fairer funding review would ‘reflect the needs of the council’.

County councillors are set to make a final decision on the 2019/20 budget at a full council meeting on February 5.