Agenda item

Budget, medium term financial plan and capital strategy (Agenda item 9)

Report of Councillor Philip Cowen, Executive Member Finance and Growth.

Minutes:

Councillor Cowen, the Executive Member for Finance & Growth presented the report.

Budget setting was a balancing process that juggled variables to deliver a set of outcomes that were designed to deliver best value services and programmes for residents and businesses alike for the year ahead and, where possible, projecting into the future.  Twelve months ago, that was the task for this Council, but little did we know then, how the lives of millions of people around the world would be changed in such a dramatic fashion.

Gathered again in 2021, albeit in a virtual world, to undertake the same, and moreover having had to reset the agreed budget in the autumn to reflect the changed circumstances as a consequence of the pandemic. Team Breckland had worked tirelessly throughout the past year to deliver services, support residents and businesses and in circumstances that none would have believed possible.

The budget setting process this year, as ever, had been challenged at ‘star chambers’, debated at Cabinet and scrutinised by the Overview and Scrutiny Commission and now at Full Council. As a result of the various stages that had preceded this meeting, many Members had already seen the content, discussed the various merits of the details contained therein and would be familiar with the report.

The process this year had adopted the same overarching principles as in previous years:

·        Assessing income streams

·        Analysing costs

·        Factoring in government funding

·        Reviewing efficiency options

·        Exploring new challenges

·        Projecting new programmes

However, this time these processes had to be undertaken against the backdrop of the fallout from the pandemic.

Councillor Cowen was pleased to announce with enormous pride that Team Breckland had produced a balanced budget for the year 2021-2022. This achievement had been made without the need for a reduction in the establishment or a dilution in services.  In fact, the reverse, this budget would protect frontline services from cuts, a number of services would be enhanced, an improved waste service, the recruitment of new officers focused on fly tipping, business support, Covid-compliance and support and animal welfare.

The Council had honoured its commitments to its climate change programme and had broadened and enhanced the vulnerability programmes.

In being able to achieve all the above, the Council had utilised some reserves to underpin the budget proposals but without the prudent fiscal management over the past decade this would not have been possible.

This was a balanced budget for the year ahead and in order to maintain service provision, place the district in a place where it could build back stronger and maintain reserves, an increase to the Band D Council tax by £4.95 per annum to £98.73 was being proposed. This would mean that Breckland residents in a Band D property would pay £1.90 per week for the District Council tax but as 75% of residents were in bands A-C their Council Tax would be less.

Budget preparation, at the best of times, was a complex process and this year had brought with it its own particular challenges on an almost weekly basis. That the Council had reached such an excellent position had been down to the hard work and dedication of Officers and Members and the detailed analysis and interrogation of the Finance Team.

Councillor Cowen felt that this was a good budget, a result of team working at its best and was commended to Members for approval.

The proposal to take the recommendations enbloc was seconded.

 

Councillor Birt requested that the recommendations were not taken enbloc as there were some that he could support and some that he could not.

 

Councillor Jermy was pleased to respond to the budget report on behalf of the Labour Group.  Members’ attention was drawn to the previous year where the budget proposals had been supported by the Opposition.  The Labour Group was in danger of creating a new trend as they would be supporting the budget once again and Members would be relieved that no amendments were going to be tabled.  The amendment that they would have tabled had already been incorporated into the budget as a result of contributions made by Opposition Members in the budget preparation stage. 

 

Members were most probably aware that he had always been concerned about the impact of Council Tax increases to some of the least well off in the District.  Council Tax was after all an aggressive tax and if it continued to increase faster than wages then difficulties in paying would inevitably increase.  Thankfully, for this year, additional safeguards had been built in with the introduction of the new £65k hardship fund.  Without this safeguard, he would not have been able to support the budget and the proposed Council Tax increase. 

 

Breckland Council was now delivering its vulnerability Programme and was set to adopt a sustainability strategy and through both of these, the Council was seeking to tackle many of the concerns that Opposition Members had raised.  Covid had somewhat had an impact on these plans and the Council should be commended on tackling domestic abuse, loneliness, isolation, rural poverty and food poverty and he hoped that these matters would continue to be developed in the year ahead as that support was likely to be needed more now than ever.

 

As a Member representing Thetford, he had been pleased with the Council’s commitments to his community over the last few years.  That said, there had been many decades of under investment in Thetford and many problems were deep rooted and would take a long time to address.  To improve the budget, he would be looking for greater support for the existing residential areas within Thetford and parts of Dereham which had seen little investment.  Breckland communities deserved better and existing areas could not be left behind as housing growth came to fruition.  He hoped that when Covid passed and the financial position allowed, this Council would look seriously at what could be done to improve these communities.

 

Fly-tipping continued to be a menace across the District in both urban and rural communities but the progress over the past year had improved and the Council now had a robust approach and a clear message.  He hoped that this would be developed further as well as the education aspect so that fly-tipping incidents could be driven down, and levels of re-use and recycling could be improved.

 

Councillor Jermy congratulated Councillor Cowen and his Team on the budget and he looked forward to it being approved with cross-party support and cross-party proposals incorporated within. 

 

Councillor Gilbert also congratulated the Team for putting this budget together under such extraordinary circumstances.  He then seconded Councillor Birt’s proposal of not taking the recommendations enbloc as he could not support recommendation 1 in respect of the special expenses for street lighting particularly in Watton.  He supported recommendations 2 to 9 but if taken enbloc he would regretfully have to vote against them all.

 

Councillor Terry also congratulated the Team on the budget in what had been an unprecedented year.   However, as a school governor he still had concerns about food poverty. 

 

Food poverty was a daily reality for more and more people in the United Kingdom and in Norfolk one in five parents had skipped meals so that their children could eat, and the problems were made worse during the school holidays.  People going hungry in Norfolk and Breckland were on low incomes and children receiving free school meals did not eat as well during the school holidays. 

 

In Norfolk, people living in disadvantaged communities were most vulnerable to food poverty and was the cause and had an effect on the social problems they faced. There was increasing evidence that the 29,300 children living in poverty in this County would go to school hungry.  This affected their ability to concentrate and undermined their potential to attain qualifications and the need to escape the poverty trap of life on benefits or life in insecure employment. 

 

With many Thetford and Breckland residents suffering in silence behind closed doors, food insecurity was a measure of severe deprivation and eating a decent diet was critical to protecting residents long term health. It was time for Breckland to have a plan for tackling this problem and to immediately provide a lifeline and the assistance which people so desperately needed.

 

Councillor Atterwill congratulated Councillor Cowen and the entire Finance Team particularly Alison Chubbock, the Chief Accountant & Deputy S151 Officer, as he was sure they had worked many hours putting this budget together.  He would be supporting the recommendations and had been particularly heartened by Councillor Terry’s amendment that he had previously put forward and was pleased that the Cabinet had taken that on board in respect of the £65k hardship fund and felt that this was an excellent example of cross-party co-operation and he hoped that this would continue. 

 

Councillor Birt thanked the Finance Team for their extraordinary efforts as he knew it must have been immensely difficult to put a budget together in these unprecedented times.  He was confident with the accuracy even though he was unable to support all the recommendations.

 

As had already been mentioned, Council Tax was an aggressive tax with no accountability to pay and more and more of the burden was being moved to local taxpayers along with ever decreasing Central Government contributions.  He appreciated that the cost of the Council Tax was to pay for social services and children’s services, nevertheless the District Council contribution was still significant.  He recognised that it was to pay for such matters as better fly tip control and animal welfare which he commended but he was struggling to agree with the £4.95 increase; however, thanks to the valiant efforts of Councillor Jermy and his Group he would reluctantly agree to this increase, but he was not able to support the budget overall.

 

It had become clear over the last few days that the Council’s climate plan was far too weak and had not been able to quantify any actual carbon savings.  He recognised that £325k had been moved over from the Reserves as a one-off contribution and was a step forward but a plan was needed now and that had not been put in place in the budget.

 

Councillor Robinson, the Executive Member for Community, Leisure & Culture felt that to bring forward a balanced budget was no mean feat in the current climate.  He had looked at this from a perspective of supporting the communities and what this budget did was to enable the Council to continue to support residents with projects that helped with their well-being such as the Market Town Initiative. 

 

The Council had committed substantial amount of funding for the Swaffham Heritage Action Zone project and a significant financial commitment towards the Town Delivery Plans. The Council had also awarded a £40k grant towards the first community supermarket in the region that was based in Thetford, which had had a positive impact on families and which a number of local authorities were seeking to replicate. 

 

He commended the work carried out by Councillor Cowen and his Team but extended his commendation to Members and Officers across the Council who had all contributed to bring the Council to this position. 

 

Councillor Borrett was pleased to hear that both the Leader of the Labour Group and the Independent Group would be endorsing the Conservative budget and he congratulated the Leader and the Cabinet Member for Finance for a ‘cracking’ piece of work. 

 

Breckland Council still had the lowest District Council Tax in the country and by having a low Council tax and because it had investments that produced income, and as the support from the Opposition had demonstrated, the Council was still able to support services and balance its budget.  This was a huge endorsement of the decisions that the Conservatives had made in running this Council for many years.

 

He was pleased to see that there was provision for support of the vulnerable in this budget but also that this Council was delivering value for money for its residents and good quality services were being delivered across the board. This was an incredible result from the Conservative administration, and he paid particular thanks to the Leader, and all the Members of the Cabinet who had pulled together to agree the budget and produce this document and whole heartedly endorsed the recommendations.     

 

Councillor Hewett, the Executive Member for Contracts & Assets congratulated Councillor Cowen.  Budget settings were challenging at the best of times but in these unusual and uncertain times he and his Team had managed to produce a balanced budget that supported vulnerability, sustainability and Breckland’s market towns whilst maintaining the Council’s frontline services and was still the lowest Council Tax of any District Council in the country. It allowed the residents and businesses to thrive and it allowed this Council as a district to grow back stronger out of Covid.

 

Councillor Hewett also challenged Councillor Gilbert’s comments as he had felt a strange sense of déjà vu.  These allowances had been raised before in open session.  Members had attended Watton Town Council a short while ago to explain precisely why Breckland Council managed 2,200 lights on behalf of the five market towns and one village within the District and how it was managed as a contract.  Watton had about 50% more streetlights than Dereham and about 30% less than Thetford.  A number of streetlights had been replaced in Watton by Breckland Council at a cost of approximately £50k. Councillor Gilbert was urged to support the resolutions in full by acknowledging the fact that Watton residents would be paying a great deal more for their Council Tax if not supported. 

 

The Chairman asked the Executive Manager for Governance for advice on whether the recommendations should be taken enbloc as two Members had indicated otherwise.  A recorded vote would still be taken.

 

By law a recorded vote had to be conducted but this would take a great deal of time for each of the 9 recommendations and therefore, the Executive Manager for Governance suggested an alternative method.  For those Members who could support most but not all of the recommendations when each name was called those Members were asked to indicate which recommendations they were voting against or were abstaining from but to confirm that they were supporting the remainder.  This would then be clearly captured in the table that would be produced for the recorded vote without going through each individual recommendation on 9 occasions.

 

The Chairman agreed with these suggestions.

 

NAME

FOR

AGAINST

ABSTAIN

Cllr Askew

X

 

 

Cllr Atterwill

X

 

 

Cllr Bambridge

X

 

 

Cllr Birt

X

Rec nos. 2, 5 & 6

 

Cllr Borrett

X

 

 

Cllr Bowes

X

 

 

Cllr Brame

X

 

 

Cllr Brindle

X

 

 

Cllr Bushell

X

 

 

Cllr M Chapman-Allen

X

 

 

Cllr S Chapman-Allen

X

 

 

Cllr Clarke

X

 

 

Cllr Claussen

X

 

 

Cllr Colman

No response

 

 

Cllr Cowen

X

 

 

Cllr Crane

X

 

 

Cllr Dowling

X

 

 

Cllr Duigan

X

 

 

Cllr Eagle

X

 

 

Cllr Gilbert

X

Rec. no. 1

 

Cllr Grey

X

 

 

Cllr Harvey

X

 

 

Cllr Hewett

X

 

 

Cllr James

X

 

 

Cllr Jermy

X

 

 

Cllr Kiddell

X

 

 

Cllr Kiddle-Morris

X

 

 

Cllr Kybird

X

 

 

Cllr I Martin

X

 

 

Cllr K Martin

X

 

 

Cllr Monument

X

 

 

Cllr Morton

X

Rec nos. 2, 5 & 6

 

Cllr Nairn

X

 

 

Cllr Nunn

X

 

 

Cllr Oliver

X

 

 

Cllr Robinson

X

 

 

Cllr Sherwood

X

 

 

Cllr Suggitt

X

 

 

Cllr Taylor

X

 

 

Cllr Terry

X

 

 

Cllr Webb

X

 

 

Cllr Wickerson

X

 

 

Cllr Wilkin

No response

 

 

Cllr Wilkinson

x

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOTAL:

40 votes in favour of all 9 recommendations

3 votes against recommendations 1, 2, 5 & 6

No abstentions

 

Subject to two votes against recommendations 2, 5 and 6 and one vote against recommendation 1, it was:

 

RESOLVED that:

 

  1. the Breckland revenue estimates and parish special expenses for 2021-22 and outlined position through to 2024-25 (as set out in Appendix B and E of the report) be approved;

 

  1. the capital estimates and associated funding for 2020-21 and 2021-22 and outline position through to 2024-25 (as set out in Appendix H of the report) be approved;

 

3.     the fees and charges shown at Appendix D and D2 of the report, for adoption on 1 April 2021 be approved;

 

  1. the Council Tax be set at £98.73 for a Band D property in 2021-22 (a £4.95 per annum increase on 2020-21 levels);

 

  1. the financial Medium-Term Plan and associated staffing full-time equivalents at Appendix A of the report be approved;

 

  1. the Capital Strategy at Appendix G of the report be approved;

 

  1. the permanent establishment be increased by 2 FTE for 2 Digital roles (front end developer and back end developer) to provide stability and consistency enabling us to deliver our digital roadmap (as detailed in paragraph 1.11 of the report);

 

  1. £65,000 be set aside for a Council Tax (S13A1c) hardship fund for 2021-22 and delegate finalisation of the policy to the Executive Member Finance & Growth and S151 Officer in conjunction with ARP (as detailed in paragraph 1.12 of the report);

 

  1. delegation be given to the Head of ARP and the S151 Officer to approve and implement any NNDR Reliefs announced in the Budget on 3 March 2021 providing they are fully funded by Government and are implemented in line with Government guidance.

 

The Executive Member for Finance & Growth thanked everyone for their endorsements for all the hard work by Team Breckland who had delivered what he believed to be a superb budget for everyone in Breckland going forward.

Supporting documents: