You may have heard or read in the news about the difficulty that Councils are facing financially; the increasing demand on services, especially within adults and children’s social care, and a dramatic rise in costs to deliver those services, and inflation.
We have prided ourselves with our prudent management of public finances, and until last year, went decades ending each financial year in the black.
But the financial conditions have changed, and we are now joining many councils and organisations that represent local authorities, to call on the government to intervene, to help support local public services.
“Our financial situation has never been so bleak as it is now,” says Council Leader
The Leader of Devon County Council, Councillor John Hart, said today that deep cuts to vital local services in Devon are inevitable unless the government provides more support.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, was expected to announce his tax and spending plan this week, but last week postponed his announcement for a fortnight.
Our Leader, Cllr John Hart, is urging the Chancellor and Prime Minister, to use the extra time they now have to produce an economic recovery plan that’s balanced, fair and equitable. And crucially, an economic plan that doesn’t single out local government for cuts.
He said: “I have been a county councillor for more than 30 years and leader of Devon County Council for nearly 14 years during which time we have been through the austerity years and the pandemic, but our financial situation has never been so bleak as it is now.”
How extensive is the problem in Devon?
Before the summer, we revealed a black hole in our finances for this year, due to surging demand for help and support for vulnerable children and adults, the continuing costs of the pandemic, and the dramatic rise in costs and inflation.
We have to, by law, balance our books each year, which means when costs rise, we must find equivalent savings in our budget elsewhere.
We have to save about £73 million this financial year. We’re already making £36 million savings, but we still have to find a further £37 million savings before the end of March 2023.
And then our projections show that we will have to make another £75 million savings next financial year. Unless the Government intervenes.
What’s the impact on local services?
We’re not alone. We and many councils are lobbying the Government hard to protect local services. With the support of our Devon MPs, we want the Government to help by not cutting funding for public services.
There are other things that we’re asking the Government to do that will help our financial situation, such as to delay the introduction of new adult social care reforms, planned for next year.
But unless there is Government support or intervention, cuts to services are inevitable.
Some services we provide are statutory, we have to provide them, and some are discretionary. Clearly, services that support our most vulnerable children and adults are a priority, and those must be protected.
We know though that all of our services are important to those who receive them or benefit from them.
“We are here to do the very best for local people and to protect and support the most vulnerable and those in real need,” said Cllr Hart today. “We will do everything in our power to continue to do this and find new ways to do things better and more sustainably.”
What are we doing about it?
We are doing several things simultaneously. We’re lobbying the Government directly, and we’re adding our voice to national campaigns from the Local Government Association and the County Councils Network, calling for financial support.
Our Leader, Cllr Hart, has also written to the new Prime Minister setting out our position and requesting his support and the support of his Government.
But we can’t wait, so we’ve already put a freeze on staff recruitment in non-frontline areas, delayed planned investment in IT and infrastructure projects, and cut our heating and lighting bills.
We’re also squeezing all of our external contracts, we’ve stopped some routine road maintenance, and are reviewing our school transport contracts and public transport subsidies.
When will we know more?
We’ve already made a lot of savings this year, but we must find more before the end of March 2023.
We are continuing to review all of our services in light of our budget.
We may have to wait to hear what’s in the Chancellor’s statement in a fortnight but we aren’t waiting to take action.