Plans to invest in key frontline services, new schools, roads and studies towards Levelling Up bids aimed at regeneration are set to be discussed by councillors in County Durham this month, alongside proposals for below inflationary increases in council tax despite significant financial pressures.
Durham County Council’s Cabinet is to be updated on the authority’s 2022/23 budget proposals and Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP) forecasts after details of the Local Government settlement figures were revealed in December.
The Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), published in October, announced that about £1.5 billion per year is expected to be allocated to core local government funding from 2022/23 onwards. The funding is to be used to cover the increase in employers’ national insurance rates as part of the health and social care levy which is expected to cost the council around £2 million each year from 2022.
At this month’s Cabinet meeting, members will hear how the council faces significant and unavoidable cost pressures totalling over £45 million next year, with £19.5 million of this being driven by inflationary and demographic pressures in statutory Adult and Children’s social care services.
Despite this, councillors will consider plans to invest £10 million of council reserves in frontline services in the county. Proposals include a significant increase in highway maintenance work, maintaining existing and developing new flood prevention schemes as well as upgrades to rural and urban footpaths, alongside investment in public rights of way and local nature reserves.
Proposals for the next financial year also include a £6.9million investment as part of a plan to build a new school in Spennymoor, replacing the existing Ox Close Primary and Oxclose Nursery schools, but with additional capacity to respond to the shortfall in places. A rebuild of Belmont Community School and Belmont CE Primary School on its existing site is also on the agenda, aimed at addressing the poor condition of both schools and future-proofing them for a projected increase in pupil numbers.
Investment towards feasibility studies for Levelling Up bids to Government to regenerate Durham City and the county’s towns and villages has also been earmarked, alongside broader investments that would unlock sites for housing and employment and support the labour market. The council aims to make new additional corporate savings totalling £1.2 million next year, with no reductions in frontline service delivery and no use of reserves to balance the budget next year.
There will be no increase in the core council tax for next year. A prudent increase in the Social Care precept of 3 per cent to help meet the rise in social care costs is recommended.
This increase would be below the Government’s expectations and below the five per cent maximum available to the council before requiring a referendum. Final decisions on the budget will be taken at a full council meeting on Wednesday 23 February.
Cllr Richard Bell, Deputy Leader of Durham County Council and Cabinet member for finance said: “We are pleased that we have been able to balance the budget next year without the need to increase the core Council Tax and without the need to use our reserves. However, we face significant and unavoidable cost pressures, particularly in our adult and social care services. Therefore we are proposing to increase the Adult Social Care precept by 3 per cent to help us meet these challenges.
“More than that, as a council we are heading into the next financial year with a wide range of new proposals to invest in frontline services, from pest control to allotments, from climate change to country parks, and with funding in place to ensure our bids for further funding from Levelling Up are robust and stand the best possible chance of success.
“On the capital side, we are planning £109 million of new investment, made up of a number of capital schemes including £22 million for new school buildings, and £14 million additional expenditure over three years to bring our unclassified roads up to standard.
“We believe these proposals will improve the lives of all our residents and going forward provide more housing and employment opportunities.
“Our increase is below those of other local authorities and below the Government’s expectations. We have carefully balanced the need to generate additional resources from a council tax increase to meet the challenges, against cost of living increases faced by our residents.
“We will strive to be flexible in our approach as we look to support residents in County Durham the best way that we can – with significant support available for financially vulnerable people through our Local Council tax Reduction Scheme.
“Our Medium Term Financial forecasts beyond next year are uncertain and we eagerly await the outcome of the Fair Funding Review later this year, which will determine whether our forecasts are correct.
“As it stands, we have some significant challenges beyond next year, with a £30 million funding gap to bridge and some difficult decisions to make from 2023/24 onwards, which as a Cabinet we will be working on as soon as this year’s budget is agreed by Full Council.”
Cabinet will meet at 9.30 am on Wednesday 9 February. The meeting will be available to view on the council’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/DurhamCouncil