Financially responsible: Looking after West Sussex

By Councillor Jeremy Hunt, Cabinet Member for Finance, West Sussex County Council

 

Release date: 24 March 2021

Money is important and managing money is a major responsibility.

As the County Council lead member for finance, I have a lead role in managing the council funds for the benefit of us all in West Sussex. It’s a duty I take seriously, working to best serve all our communities.

Managing the finances of the council is a complex task with a net annual budget of more than £600m in revenue expenditure for day to day running.

As a council, we recently agreed a financially sound budget that will deliver council services across the county for the year ahead. While the annual budget setting makes news, and rightly so, the budget process happens all year round to make sure we are working together across the county to deliver services.

During the past year, the County Council has faced unprecedented challenges due to the global pandemic. At the same time, there has been uncertainty around future funding from central government and pressure on our resources has increased due to growing demand, especially for key services such as adults and children’s social care.

As we continue to provide support during the pandemic, we have looked carefully at our spending to see how we can continue to modernise our services while supporting the most vulnerable in our society.

At the same time, it’s important that we continue to find ways to invest in the future prosperity of our county through our separate capital programme.

To support this we have agreed a new four-year Our Council Plan. The plan provides a clear direction for our resources and sets out our priority outcomes:

  • To keep people safe
  • Ensure a sustainable and prosperous economy
  • Help communities fulfil their potential
  • Make the best use of our resources. 

All of these priorities are very much underpinned by the growing need to also address climate change.

To deliver these priorities and to meet the rising demand for statutory services, we have looked carefully at income and expenditure. As part of this year’s budget we followed the Government guidance on recommended council tax rises and we approved a council tax increase in West Sussex of 4.99 per cent. Of the 4.99 per cent council tax increase, 3 per cent is specifically for adult social care, with the remaining 1.99 per cent for other core services.

This puts the County Council element of an average band D council tax bill at £1,510.56 –. This is an increase of £71.82 per year or just under 20p per day compared to last year’s bill.

There has long been an issue with how adult social care is funded and we continue to work with local MPs to press Government to ensure we get adequate and sustainable funding going forward. Services supporting vulnerable adults account for a third of our budget, so the size of the challenge is significant. Additional council tax to support adult social care is not a long term solution to this situation, but something we have little choice over if we wish to continue to fund these vital services.

The decision to increase council tax was not taken lightly given the financial hardship we know many of you are currently facing, but with continuing low levels of government funding an increase of this scale has been unavoidable. The alternative would be to cut essential frontline services which we all rely on at some point.

Now more than ever we know that people need the services which local government provides, so we will continue to look for new ways to provide these vital services for you and your communities.

One question that is often asked is, why we can’t use our reserves instead of increasing council tax?

As a local authority we are not able to borrow money to fund our day-to-day revenue activity. Our reserves ensure we have sufficient funds to deal with future expenditure, known risks and unforeseen events.

Although the reserves appear to be a large amount of money, they are for the most part committed and, more importantly, do underpin our financial stability.

Apart from all the reasons above, use of Reserves needs to be carefully considered for the key reason that Reserves can only be used once. So, if they were used to 'soften the blow' in the coming year, we would be facing an even larger budget gap over the following three years, than the £53m we are currently predicting.

If you’d like to find out more about our finances, the Our Council Plan, and how we spend your money please visit: www.westsussex.gov.uk/budget.

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