Agenda item

Draft budget setting, Medium Term Financial Plan and Capital Strategy 2022-23

Report of Councillor Phillip Cowen, Executive Member for Finance, Revenues & Benefits.


The Executive Member for Finance, Revenues & Benefits, Councillor Cowen, explained that the draft budget had been presented to Cabinet on 10 January 2022, he felt it was testament to the diligent work that Breckland Council had undertaken during the pandemic and particularly over the last 12 months. 


In summary he drew attention to the following key points, he explained that this was a balanced budget for the coming year set against continued uncertainty around Government funding, potential central policies and fees and charging income streams. He stated that in order to maintain services, deliver on core strategies and initiatives and support residents and businesses the budget proposed an increase in Council Tax, for a Band D property, of £4.95 per year, less than 10p increase per week. The final budget proposals would be put before Cabinet and Full Council in February.


Councillor Cowen said that there was no doubt that Breckland Council would face challenges in the future as a result of widely trailed Central Government Policies surrounding for example recycling provisions and the Environment Bill. Similarly, there was a significant risk associated with the National Non-Domestic Rate (NNDR) and it’s reset that would change the baseline funding level and the team had identified this risk in the budget preparations as having an impact in either the years 2023/24 or 2024/25 and perhaps beyond.


Councillor Cowen explained that Government had provided a further £830,000 of New Homes Bonus (NHB), and that this had been posted to the inclusive growth reserve to enable Breckland Council to maintain delivery of projects and programmes. As a result of the continuing impact of Covid-19 the Council had amended and refined efficiency requirements and as a result of that the Evolve Programme had been developed that would help to offset the anticipated budget deficits in the immediate future.


To conclude Councillor Cowen stated that the draft budget had been based on the following principles:


·         Breckland Council had no reliance on NHB funding

·         Breckland Council could and would maintain service delivery

·         Breckland Council would continue to invest in its priorities, Thriving Places, Breckland 2035, Working Smarter and Inspiring Communities

·         Breckland Council had reserves that would be used to provide financial support for projects that led to growth and investment and/or achieve savings or income

·         Breckland Council has put in place an achievable efficiencies programme to assist in the management of future funding changes and financial risks

·         Breckland Council had increased the Council Tax hardship fund by £35,000 this year



Councillor Birt asked where the funding was for Carbon Efficiency as he felt there were some large projects that needed to be addressed, he could not see that funding had been set aside to achieve this.


The Executive Director, Steve James said that Breckland Council had previously set aside £500,000 in its’ reserve to undertake evidence-based analysis of its buildings and carbon footprint alongside other sustainability projects. He further explained that the Evolve Programme also had a strand of funding to look at solar and renewable energy and that they were also working with partners to look at how they could reduce their carbon footprint. The evidence gathered would hopefully enable Breckland Council to attract external funding through Government sources.

Councillor Birt said he recognised that the budget was looking at medium to long term however he felt that proper funding needed to be put in place to start the process now. He felt that Breckland Council was not moving quickly enough or going far enough to be able to achieve the required efficiencies.


Councillor Sherwood responded stating that the commitment had been made and that Breckland Council had been very forward thinking in the campaign towards carbon reduction, sustainability and the green agenda and Net Zero 2035 and that it was a very positive and forward-thinking campaign.


Councillor Jermy said that, along with other increases in the cost of living, particularly energy bills, some residents would struggle and with an increase in council tax as well it was important that Members were aware of any additional help such as the hardship fund to be able to offer this support to residents in need. He was pleased to see this had been reviewed and topped up but felt more could be done to make residents aware of help and assistance available to them to pay their current bill and any accumulated arrears. People’s circumstances could change quite quickly, and that Breckland Council should be reminding residents on a periodic basis of the help and assistance available should the need arise.


Councillor Jermy also stated that nationally, all councils were moving towards a food waste collection service in a few years’ time and a lot of work had already been done in Thetford to reduce the amount of food waste produced. He felt that Breckland Council should be doing more towards the education surrounding the reduction of food waste. The cost in terms of finance and carbon was significant and asked what flexibility there was in the budget to find the finance to support a pilot for a food waste reduction officer.


In response, Councillor Cowen advised a leaflet was included in all council tax bills offering support with different methods of payment along with a telephone number to call if residents were struggling and also information on council tax reduction and hardship schemes along with benefits advice and also that ward Members should be aware of this assistance to help support and advise any residents that were struggling.


In response to the finance to support a food waste reduction officer, Councillor Cowen said that there were insufficient funds within the current budget to support this at this time and Breckland Council had, through previous education programmes, encouraged residents to think about food waste and would continue to encourage this in the future. He said that budgets were flexible and although there were other priorities for the budget at this time, it could change in the future, and should this become more of a priority a decision could be made to support this if Members felt there was a need at the time.


Councillor Turner said that in her Ward they were fortunate to have a parish magazine and ensured that there was information circulated within the magazine to guide residents and remind them of the help available and how to access it.


Councillor Birt stated that in the table on page 26 of Appendix A of the report, the cost-of-living increase had been set at 2% for years 22-23 which he felt was too low a figure and asked what this figure was based on. Also, on the last line of the table, in the tax base, the current year had risen by 600 properties which was what was possibly expected with the increase in house building. However, with the predictions from 2022 to 2026 it was only increasing by approximately 300 properties per year and asked for more details on how this prediction was reached.


Councillor Cowen advised that the 2% cost of living increase was the Bank of England target which was the figure that had been worked with. The tax base was assessed on a Council Tax Band D property, 75% of houses in Breckland fell within band A, B or C. The mathematical equation which delivered the tax base number was based on the number of houses that were projected to be built based on the information given to the planning team by the house builders and as a result it averaged out at a band D level.


The Assistant Director Finance, Alison Chubbock explained that the 2% was an assumption only and historically the average that had transpired through time and was a good and fair assumption to use.


The tax base was linked to property, but it could not be linked directly to the number of houses built, it was affected by the local council tax reduction scheme which took 91.5% out of the tax base, it is also affected by disabled exemptions and single person discount at 25%, plus other available discounts, it was a good assumption to use based on previous years taken as an average.


The Chairman said that there had been some discussion in the media regarding National Insurance and asked if the increase did not to go ahead what would be the financial impact to the Council.


The Assistant Director Finance explained that in financial terms it would be about £70,000 per year, however this year the Government had given a new grant which would offset the additional cost to cover this type of instance, so it would not affect the budget in the fact that if the rise didn’t take place the grant may not be available.


Councillor Birt raised concerns in respect of what public money was being spent on and was worried with the decisions reached with the Market Towns Initiative and whether the money could be better spent elsewhere.


Councillor Robinson said the projects that had been agreed to be financed under the Market Towns Initiative were to support towns and businesses and were led by local Members, across all parties and all districts, driven by local Members which would suggest local demand was being met. Public furniture provided people with more reason to enter the districts towns and villages, which in turn would bring revenue and prosperity.


Councillor Cowen said it was important to recognise towns and villages were still struggling to come out of the pandemic, it was the market towns that would help to rebuild the economy of the district and Breckland Council needed to support this to let it happen and not impose what we thought was right. Breckland Council had engaged with communities, the retail trade, the Chamber of Commerce, residents and businesses to identify what they perceived to be their strengths and weaknesses and the result of that was how to make those places more attractive because the local people were aware of what they wanted and needed to survive.


Councillor Eagle pointed out that Dereham was Norfolk’s largest market town as a retail outlet after Kings Lynn, Great Yarmouth and Norwich and as such Breckland Council needed to keep all of its market towns inviting to increase footfall and to make them more attractive for people to visit.


Councillor Birt said his concern was in respect of public perception at this time of general need when residents were struggling to meet the cost-of-living pressures and would like to ensure things were done in the right way and for the right reason.


Councillor Jermy proposed that the Overview and Scrutiny Commission request that the Cabinet explore opportunities to recruit a Food Waste Reduction Officer to be included in the budget. This proposal was seconded.


Councillor Wickerson felt that this was not a necessary expense at this time as he felt that the majority of residents were already working towards reducing food wastage.


Councillor Eagle felt that the issue needed to be tackled at the top of the chain with the providers and would like to see it directed at suppliers.


Members of the Commission voted against the proposal at this time.







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