Yesterday County Councillors agreed budget proposals put forward by the Council’s controlling Conservative group, which included no new cuts, a deferral of some cuts agreed in previous years, as well as a lower than expected increase to council tax.
Conservative councillors said their proposals came as the authority is in a better financial position than in previous years, although opposition councillors argued the move had more to do with May’s local council elections than monetary management.
Similar criticisms were aimed at Liberal Democrat councillors, however, who had put forward an amended budget, seeking to rebalance council spending as well as increase investment in climate change initiatives.
Speaking on his party’s proposals, Conservative Cabinet Member for Resources Nick Bennett said:
Our joint lobbying with MPs and partners has convinced the government of the pressures we face.
The spending review 2020 and the local government settlement announced additional grant funding – including a £300m social care grant of which we have received £2.5m – and council tax flexibility which has meant that the financial position for next year is not as challenging as in previous years.Cllr Nick Bennett
Under the Conservative budget proposals, the authority would increase its base Council Tax amount by 1.99 per cent, but forego its full Adult Social Care precept.
The Council has been given the option to increase the charge for Adult Social Care by three per cent – but plans to spread it across two years instead.
When put together, Council Tax will be increased by 3.49% for East Sussex County Council this year. With the average Band D property paying £1,544.04 per annum towards the County Council; an increase of £52.02 on the current year.
Cllr Bennet said the council was able to defer the payment due to “prudent financial management” in previous years.
The proposed increases in council tax and the adult social care levy will cost a band D household [an extra] £1 per week, but it will help contribute to the longer term sustainability of the services we provide.
In presenting this budget I am pleased to say there has been no need for further savings in addition to those already reported previously in our medium term financial plan.
In recognition of the pressures being faced by families we have been able to defer some planned savings within children’s services, in family key work and safeguarding services.Cllr Nick Bennett (CONS, Arlington, East Hoathly and Hellingly)
At previous meetings, opposition Councillors had said the decision to defer the savings and full increase in the precept were due to the local council elections due to take place this May.
However, similar claims were made about a proposed budget amendment brought forward by the Council’s Liberal Democrat group at Tuesday’s meeting.
The Liberal Democrat amendment proposed additional spending in several areas, including extra funding on Special Educational Needs support for schools and advice services for primary schools.
This would be funded through cuts elsewhere, including the removal senior officer role and a £200,000 cut to the council’s communications budget, Lib Dems said.
They also argued for a one off-payment to children’s mental health “to assess the impact of the pandemic”, which would be funded through special covid reserves.
The amendment also proposed that around £980,000 of currently uncommitted funds should be allocated to a range of Council services, including respite services and support for the voluntary sector.
It also called for a £1m budget for investment in climate change initiatives – including solar power and electric car charging points – and up to £200,000 of capital spending on pavement repairs.
Cllr David Tutt, leader of the Council’s Liberal Democrat group, said:
What we are looking at here is an amendment which seeks to highlight what we consider to be the most important issues for East Sussex County Council.
We have in the past been criticised for just putting a piece of paper out at the last minute. We sent this out yesterday evening so people had time to reflect upon the proposals we are making.
There is nothing in here that hasn’t been considered many times before, so it is not something that is being put before members totally fresh.
But they are issues we believe are important and a Liberal Democrat administration would put into action.
I don’t believe that there is anything here that could be seen as reckless or even particularly radical.
It is directing monies that are within the financial envelope moved by Cllr Bennett and putting them towards priority areas identified by the East Sussex community.
Those are: those who are vulnerable and the climate emergency.Cllr David Tutt (Eastbourne – St Anthony’s)
While Cllr Tutt said the amendment was balanced and did not involve taking money from reserves, it came in for some significant criticism from councillors from other political parties.
Particular criticism came from Conservative councillor Michael Ensor, who argued that the proposals should have been brought forward as part of the council’s scrutiny process. He said:
There may be value in the ideas and they could be submitted to scrutiny in the coming months, but to try and ambush the council with these matters that have not been thought through thoroughly by scrutiny I believe is deplorable.Cllr Michael Ensor (Bexhill North)
This criticism was picked up by Labour group co-leader Godfrey Daniel, who argued there was a lack of detail in where the savings proposed in the amendment were supposed to come from. He said:
I think most of this is just made up numbers, to be honest, to try to make an argument when there is an election coming up. When you are serious, Cllr Tutt, about your budget, talk to us.
We haven’t put an amendment in this year and what we would like to do, when we take control after May, either as a majority or a significant minority, [is] revise and look at these.
But you are not going to get our support for things that are done on the back of a fag packet, which you have given us no chance to argue about at all.Cllr Godfrey Daniel (Hastings – Braybrooke and Castle)
Similar criticisms were raised by others at the meeting, but the line of argument saw some criticism in return from Liberal Democrat councillor Colin Swansborough. He said:
They seem to have formed the opinion that the only way we can come to this forum in February each year is by going through something called the scrutiny process first.
We go through all of the processes and play a full part in all of the debates. We still after that have the right to come to this meeting and define what our priorities are and how we are going to fund them. That is exactly what we have done again today.
We have defined our priorities and we have had reason to doubt at times the Conservative priorities because a lot of us have sat here in the last 10 years where £138m has been hacked off the county council’s budget.Cllr Colin Swansborough (Eastbourne – Hampden Park)
Following debate, the Liberal Democrat amendment was defeated and the Conservative-backed proposals agreed.