Councillor Williamson, the Deputy Leader and Executive Member for Financial Sustainability, submitted a report on the Budget 2021/22 and Medium Term Financial Plan 2021-2024. The budget proposals contained revenue budgeting, funding through council tax, review of fees and charges, use of reserves and the capital programme. The report also contained plans for how the council intended to prepare for future financial challenges. He referred back to 2020, where it was identified that £4 million of savings needed to be found over the next three years and the Leadership Team were asked to present ideas for savings within their services to meet the saving targets and the set of preferred option were listed in Appendix A. He confirmed that the proposal to charge for green waste collections had been approved by Council in January 2021 and sign ups to the scheme were progressing well and meeting the expectation contained in the Medium Term Financial Plan. At the time of speaking, 9,550 households had already signed up which represented a third of all households.The savings would be introduced in stages over the next three years, with the savings proposals published filling the budget gap in 2021/22 but leaving £200k in 2022/23 and £1 million in 2023/24 to find.
Councillor Williamson referred to the New Homes Bonus which had been scaled back over the last three years and explained that its future looked doubtful with the government having launched a consultation on proposals to replace it. A proportion of this bonus used to be distributed to Town and Parish Councils on a discretionary basis. This budget proposed that they would be able to request funding up to the level which they would have previously received for community projects.
Councillor Williamson outlined that the council had, in previous successive years, frozen or had limited increases in council tax. Three years ago, the government made clear that they expected local authorities to become financially self-sufficient and accepted need to increase Council Tax to the maximum allowed without a referendum. He explained this position had not changed and Council Tax would be increased each year in the life of the Medium Term Financial Plan which was equivalent of £5 a year on a Band D property and this would generate critical additional revenue every year.
Councillor Williamson outlined the fees and charges, another key source of council income which had been reviewed annually and a 2.5% increase in line with inflation was built into the budget.
Councillor Williamson said the financial challenges were not new and the council had endeavoured to become more entrepreneurial and less dependent on central government funding. Good management of reserves were vital and would be reviewed regularly.
Councillor Williamson said that the Hartham Leisure Centre and Hertford Theatre projects as part of the capital programme had been progressing well and their business cases had been refreshed last year. The final business case for the Old River Lane project would be presented to Council on 18 March 2021.
Councillor Williamson looked ahead to the future and explained the council would undertake a transformation programme to find further efficiencies in ways of working, resources, procurement and operational needs.
To sum up, Councillor Williamson thanked the Leadership Team, finance officers and other services who played a role in formulating the plan for this year and beyond. The council’s aim was to deliver on priorities and invest in services and its communities. The proposed budget for 2021/22 was extremely challenging but one that has succeeded in protecting front line services.
Councillor Goldspink said that the Liberal Democrat group had studied the budget proposals carefully and they acknowledged that the council was facing serious financial pressures and accepted that the budget proposed was the best that could be achieved in difficult circumstances. She commented that the consequences of Brexit could have been foreseen but appreciated that neither Covid-19 nor the government change in policy on borrowing could not have been. She raised concerns about the huge capital programme that was being undertaken with four large projects at one time and regretted the need to increase Council Tax which might cause financial problems for those who are disadvantaged. She concluded that the Liberal Democrat group were not happy with the budget but they did recognise it was the best that could have achieved in difficult circumstances.
Councillor Devonshire thanked the Executive and all officers who he felt had done a fantastic job in producing a balanced budget. He said that it should be applauded that front line service had not been affected.
Councillor E Buckmaster responded to Councillor Goldspink’s comments on the capital programme and said that these projects had been developed over a long period of time and were based on returns of current subsidies of aging assets. The council have invested capital to have a positive impact on revenue and would enhance residents’ wellbeing. He highlighted that the Executive Member for Financial Sustainability had mentioned that the business cases for the projects had been reviewed and were shown to still be viable.
Councillor Haysey said that it was important to realise that the council had been almost fully supported by government grants and this would not continue in the future and there would be a lot of change in the next two to three years. She said that some residents believed that as the economy improves, the council would be able to do more but this would not be the case and the council needs a prudent budget. She welcomed Councillor Goldspink’s comments that the budget was the best that could be achieved. Front line services have not been cut and the conservative approach provides good quality services to residents.
Councillor Redfern commented that she was not pleased about the budget but also recognised it was the best that could be done in exceptional circumstances. She raised concerns for future years and was alarmed at the figures on risk moving forward. She queried whether in the future, savings could be found without cutting services.
Councillor Curtis said that the opposition members continue to refer to not being pleased about the budget but did not mention any specifics.
Councillor Deering said the council’s investment into the larger town centres in the district should be applauded and that residents and traders were pleased that the council is taking the initiative to increase footfall. He agreed with Councillor Redfern’s comments that the future would be challenging but said this would be where competent administrations would excel. The Conservative administration had kept the council’s finances under control over several years and would continue to do so into the future.
Councillor Wilson referred back to the four large capital projects. He said that the council could not be hundred percent sure that it would gain the revenue has had been predicted. He felt that residents in Bishop’s Stortford are not confident that the Old River Lane project would make a profit.
Councillor Williamson thanked all members for their comments and said they had been noted. Councillor Williamson proposed and Councillor Pope seconded the recommendations.
A recorded vote was taken, the result being:
Councillors Alder, Andrews, Bolton, Boylan, E Buckmaster, R Buckmaster, Bull, Burmicz, Crofton, Curtis, Cutting, Deering, Devonshire, Drake, Fernando, Frecknall, Goodeve, Hall, Haysey, Hollebon, Jones, Kemp, McMullen, Newton, Page, Pope, Reed, Rowley, Ruffles, Rutland-Barsby, Snowdon, Stevenson, Stowe, Symonds, Ward-Booth, Williamson and Wyllie.
Councillors Beckett, Bell, Brady, Corpe, Dumont, Goldspink, Kaye, Redfern and Wilson
RESOLVED - that (A)the East Herts share of the Council Tax for a Band D property in 2021/22 be set at £179.09, an increase of £5, the maximum permitted within the Council Tax Referendum principles;
(B) The Budget 2021/22 and the Medium Term Financial Plan 2021 – 2024 is approved;
( C) The savings plans summarised in Appendix A are approved for implementation and that Council require that compensating savings, delivered to the same timescales, have to be put in place and reported to the next Council meeting should the Executive decide that any savings proposals should not proceed, or are reduced by 10% or more;
(D) The capital programme set out in Appendix E is approved; and
(E) The schedule of charges for 2021/22 set out in Appendix F, with an average increase of 2.5%, is approved.