A swathe of cuts to West Sussex’s public services will have to be made if the government does not step in with extra funding.
West Sussex County Council has had to find huge savings year after year due to a dramatic reduction in funding and growing demand for several key departments.
These pressures have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and while central government has provided some extra cash, it is not nearly enough to plug the massive hole in the authority’s finances.
The current budget gap stands at £43.6million for the next financial year 2021/22 and factors in budget pressures the county council knows are coming.
To date the county council has identified £20.2m efficiencies and savings leaving a further £23.4m to find.
A list of potential savings to close the budget gap for 2021/2022 will be put before the council’s cabinet on Tuesday November 24.
The list includes:
• Reviewing day services
• Working with parish councils in specific areas to review the library service offer available in the communities
• Introducing measures to reduce the amount of DIY waste presented at Household Waste Recycling Sites (HWRS) and review of the HWRS network
• Ending community highway schemes and reallocating the capital budget to highways maintenance
• A reduction in additional bus pass access for specific groups including companion passes or users with a registered disability. There is no change to the statutory scheme
• Reviewing council-owned estate and buildings
• A removal of layers of managers in the children’s services department
• Redesigning IT services
• Not reopening the public café at County Hall, Chichester,
The county council has written to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to set out its position and the pressures it faces and has its next meeting with West Sussex MPs this week to talk through the detail of the savings plan.
Some proposals ‘unpalatable’
Paul Marshall, Conservative leader of the county council, said: “I am under no illusions that some of these proposals are unpalatable for many of our residents and they are not decisions we want to take. The global pandemic has had a huge impact on our residents but it has also made our financial situation extremely challenging.
“The needs of our residents, be that older people needing care and support or vulnerable young children needing protection, are growing as the financial support we receive shrinks. That was the case before Covid-19 hit and is even more keenly felt as we battle a global pandemic and the local impact that is having.
“As our residents struggle with job losses and we see local businesses close as a result of the pandemic that also has a direct impact on the income we receive through council tax and business rates. We must focus the resources we have on protecting our most vulnerable and keeping people safe and that’s why we must look at our budget alongside the reset plan which sets out how we will move forward as a county.
“However, we, like every local authority, have to take difficult decisions about things that really affect people’s lives. We do not do that lightly and I want to reassure residents that we will do everything possible to mitigate the impact where we can. We continue to lobby hard with national Government to help them to understand the impact of continuing increased demand, coupled with the pandemic, on local government. We have regularly briefed our local MPs on how local people are affected and continue to set out for them how this continued pressure on local authorities will impact on our communities and those we are here to support.”
The budget is being considered as part of the development of the council’s services to ensure the council is focusing the limited budget it has on the priorities it has developed.
This work is being driven through the development of a reset plan – the council’s new corporate plan. The reset plan guides how the council spends the significant sums in its budget, ensures it is accountable for our delivery, and aligns the council’s priorities to the budget.
That work is happening together with partners and staff to make sure there is a sustainable and long-term plan for the future.
For the following three years the county council anticipates gaps of £44m, £17m and £5.9m; a total budget gap of £110m over the four-year period, prior to considering savings options.
If the list of proposals is agreed by cabinet there will be further work done on the detailed planning before a formal decision is made next month.
The problems experienced in West Sussex are ones mirrored in county and city halls across the country.
‘Little room to manoeuvre’
Earlier this week Croydon Council hit the headlines for bringing in emergency spending restrictions and issuing a notice effectively declaring its bankruptcy.
Meanwhile a survey by the County Councils Network showed that just one in five of its members are ‘confident’ they can deliver a balanced budget next year without dramatic reductions to services.
While the councils have received some government funding to help cover extra expenditure during the pandemic, they face significant lost income from reduced council tax and business rates receipts.
David Williams, chairman of the County Councils Network, said: “Over the past decade, councils have done all they can to protect frontline services, transforming their organisations so they are more efficient. But as this survey shows, we are quickly running out of ways to meet the funding shortfall without dramatic reductions which will make visible and damaging changes to highly-valued services.
“The financial support provided by government over the past year has been very welcome. But even before the onslaught of a second wave, councils were facing difficult choices and they are now left with little room to manoeuvre over the coming months as they face further escalating costs resulting in an immediate cliff-edge next year.
“Councils have pulled out all the stops throughout this pandemic to protect residents, maintain vital services and support the economic recovery. To ensure that they can continue to do whatever it takes over the winter to combat Coronavirus and to prevent severe reductions to services next year, they need a significant increase in funding for 2021/22, alongside an income guarantee to protect against losses in council tax.”