I have been following with interest news stories over the last few months about the finances of local authorities across the country.
The Local Government Association painted a stark picture recently of a funding gap of almost £4 billion for authorities over the next two years, and I should emphasise that’s just the cost to keep services standing still.
Inflationary costs, a growing need for our services and protecting our environment mean councils are looking to their spending priorities, and in some cases their reserves, and having to make tough choices in order to plan for the future.
I understand all too well how much people in our communities, especially the most vulnerable, rely on our services and what it would mean if the county council were no longer able to provide them.
That is why here in West Sussex we take budget planning extremely seriously, keeping at the forefront of our minds that it is not our money we are spending, but our residents’ and businesses’ money, and that it is our responsibility to ensure the money is spent well in delivering cost-effective services.
So, when we as a local authority ask our residents to pay more in council tax, we must also continuously challenge ourselves to ensure everything we do provides value for money.
When we look at the services and how we shape them for the future, they must be sustainable, deliver meaningful results and make best use of our limited resources.
And when we plan our budgets, we must always ensure our spending aligns with the priorities in Our Council Plan, focusing on what matters to our communities.
This approach to budget planning has never been more important than right now when all of us, our residents, our businesses, our staff, our partners and our service providers, are facing increased financial pressures and demands.
In February, West Sussex County Council delivered a balanced budget for this current year and our work on a budget for the next financial year is already well underway.
In 2024 to 2025 we are proposing to invest an extra £53m in revenue spending on vital services including £31.2m for vulnerable children and young people, £12.3m for adults’ social care, and £5m to maintain the county’s 4,000km of roads.
In addition, we will continue to commit to our capital expenditure programme, which in February saw £747.2m dedicated over five years to further investments in the county’s highways, environment, schools, buildings and IT and digital infrastructure.
We are in the process of refreshing our programme for 2024/25 to ensure timescales for delivery and estimated costs are accurately reflected, and that any new investments required are taken into consideration.
The complex demands we face, however, mean that, if we were not to make any budget reductions, or propose any increase in council tax, we would be left with a budget gap of £44.9m.
As you would expect, we’re now looking at all available options to ensure our proposed plans to protect vital services and invest in the priority areas in Our Council Plan are sustainable and realistic.
It’s a challenging process, but one that I believe is achievable.
To break it down, we are considering a proposal to reduce the budget by £11.8m that, if approved, would reduce the funding gap to £33.1m. We could further bridge the gap if the county council were to decide to increase council tax by the maximum allowable of 2.99% and the adult social care precept of 2%.
Bearing in mind our approach to ensure we’re delivering what matters most to our communities, we are opening up the proposals for public consultation so that you can have your say on our priorities and how we spend your money.
Together with my Cabinet team, we will consider your feedback at our meeting in January before recommending the budget to a Full County Council meeting for final decision in February.
It’s worth also saying that, when you look at the value local authorities provide to the communities they serve, it’s right we do all we can to influence government ministers and policy makers to recognise the funding constraints, the rising demands we’re managing and how this impacts our services.
So please be assured that, at the same time as we are developing our budget plans for West Sussex, we will continue to lobby national government for fairer funding settlements that benefit communities in our county.
Please take a look at the West Sussex County Council website for updates as our budget plans progress.
I look forward to hearing your views.