Nabil Najjar - Report - February 2023
The council's budget proposals have been published
Published 17 January 2023
Wiltshire Council's proposed budget has been published, detailing how the council will continue to deliver quality vital services through an unpredictable time over the next three financial years amid a cost-of-living crisis, whilst also delivering on its Business Plan priorities.
The proposals outline the significant increase in spend the council will make to ensure the county remains a place that people want to live in, work and visit, with an additional £69m, before savings, added into the 2023/24 service budgets to cover inflation and demand for services. Over £42m of that additional spend will go towards services protecting the most vulnerable in society.
Following the extraordinary national inflation rate, which currently sits at 10.5%, the growing cost-of-living crisis driven by high energy costs, and the continued latent impact of the pandemic, this remains a very challenging time for virtually all local authorities up and down the country.
The council's proposed budget for 2023/24 stands at £465m. It is legally obliged to set a balanced budget and the proposed measures are intended to ensure there is a strong financial foundation in place over the coming years during such an unpredictable time.
The most significant spending in 2023/24 will be on:
Whole life pathway (mental health, autism spectrum conditions and learning disabilities support services) - £96m, an increase of £11m
Living and aging well (adult care) - £83m, an increase of £15m
Families and children -£63m, an increase of £2m
Environment (which includes waste and recycling services)- £48m, an increase of £4m
Highways and transport - £41m, an increase of £3m
Education and skills - £29m, an increase of £6m
The council's last reported budget gap for 2023/24 to 2025/26 in November stood at around £45m, but following confirmation of the Government's financial settlement this was brought down to around £33m. However, through careful planning the cabinet is proposing a balanced budget for this three-year period, which critically does not require the council to use reserves to fund ongoing service delivery. The council is also in a position to release £13 million of reserves to spend on business priorities, particularly in supporting housing provision during the cost of living crisis.
Wiltshire Council is proposing a 2.99% council tax increase ... (representing) an increase of £1.57 per week for Band D (£81.64pa)
The Government has allowed councils greater flexibility in how they set their council tax. As a result, Wiltshire Council is proposing a 2.99% general increase for the council's element of council tax, plus a 2% levy to be spent solely on adult social care. This will mean an increase of £1.57 per week for those in a Band D property. Around 84% of the council's core funding comes from local taxes, business rates and council tax, so it is necessary to increase these. This will help to contribute towards closing the budget gap, while ensuring that vital services can still be provided. The majority of funding goes towards the council's statutory services, which include adult social care and children's services - with continued pressures and demands in those areas.
A number of other measures are proposed by the council during 2023/24, including an increase in some fees and charges for some council services such as leisure and garden waste collection; making better use of the council's own buildings, including letting space out where appropriate; and a more streamlined Street Scene service. Staffing savings have also been identified across the next three financial years, and steps to deliver these will include the deletion of some vacant posts, managing spend on agency staff, and holding other vacancies temporarily. In addition, a freeze on incremental pay progression remains, as agreed last year with the recognised trade unions.
However, despite the challenges, the council will continue to invest in the improvement and maintenance of the county's infrastructure, with almost £200m alone due to be spent on capital projects in 2023/24. These include
Salisbury Future High Streets - £7.585m
Trowbridge Future High Streets - £4.403m
Fitness equipment for leisure centres - £986k
Council house build programme/refurbishment - £30.580m
Schools maintenance and modernisation - £8.268m
Silverwood Special School - £10.262m
Installation of contactless parking machines £127k
Ultrafast broadband - £1.011m
Structural maintenance and bridges - £20.727m
M4/J17 project - £1.950m
A338 Salisbury junction improvements - £1.261m
A350 Chippenham bypass - £2.640m
Melksham Bypass - £3.106m
Trowbridge Leisure Centre - £800k (with further funding for this project allocated in subsequent financial years)
Drainage improvements - £500k
Cllr Richard Clewer, Leader of Wiltshire Council, said: "The factors that are currently affecting everyone in their day-to-day lives, such as huge inflation, energy costs, and the cost-of-living crisis, are what we as a council and organisation are facing, too. For a number of years now we have had to overcome eye-watering budget gaps and we believe we have still provided quality services in the face of this. Through sound financial management, having a clear business plan which drives everything we do, and always favouring the bigger picture over short-term fixes, we believe we are in a much better place than other local authorities, and that allows us to put forward a balanced budget proposal that sees a financially sustainable council living within its means.
"We don't make decisions such as proposing an increase to council tax lightly, as we know people are struggling at the moment, but these are necessary choices for us to provide the types of services that people rely on. We are also focusing on transforming and modernising our services to adapt to changing demand and new technology, not simply make cuts. Despite the challenges, we are still planning a significant uplift in spending on services in our county over the coming years. Also, through sound financial management we are able to release some of the reserves we have previously set aside to address some of the specific areas of priority inside our business plan. Unlike many councils we are not using reserves to balance our books but instead to improve services for the future.
"We continue to be in regular contact with the Government, and they know full well the huge challenges that ourselves and all other local authorities are facing and the vital role we play in the daily lives of residents, so we hope this is recognised in any future funding they allocate. We'll certainly continue to lobby at every opportunity. We remain an ambitious council, which is evident through our Business Plan priorities and where we want to invest, and we'll continue to seek any funding on behalf of the county if we believe it will have a positive impact for our communities.
"Wiltshire is a thriving county with a rich and diverse heritage, and we remain focused on doing what is right for it and our communities over the long-term."
No final decisions on the proposals have been made, and prior to being discussed and debated at Full Council on 21 February, they will be scrutinised by various groups including members, group leaders, trade union representatives and the council's Overview and Scrutiny Management committee.
The budget proposals can be found at Draft 2023/24 budget papers.
Councillor Nabil Najjar
Fovant and Chalke Valley division – Wiltshire Council
Portfolio Holder for Arts, Heritage and Tourism