Cheshire East Council has launched a consultation on proposals to find additional income and savings to ensure a balanced budget for the 2023/24 financial year – while continuing to deliver on the Council's Corporate Plan.
The council set a four-year balanced budget in February 2022. Since then, national and international economic factors have radically changed the forecasts on which that budget was based.
General inflation is running at around 10 per cent currently, which is five times the national target of two per cent, which was the figure that informed the 2022/23 budget forecasts. Fuel and energy price inflation is significantly higher, pay costs are also notably higher than forecasts, and interest rates have risen from 0.5 per cent in February 2022 to 3.5 per cent in December which affects the costs of borrowing on the council's major infrastructure projects.
In addition, like other councils across the country, Cheshire East Council is seeing increasing complexity of demand in services to support people who need additional help. More than 60 per cent of the council's net budget is spent on these services for adults and children.
The draft financial strategy includes a number of proposals to re-balance the council's budget.
This includes a 4.99 per cent council tax increase for next year in line with government expectations.
Other proposals affecting day-to-day services, include
- Introduction of subscription charging for green waste collections (Changes could require food waste to be placed in black bins)
- Reduction in existing maintenance regimes to parks, public open spaces and other green spaces - specifically but not limited to frequency of grass cutting, tree and flower bed planting
- Reduction in library opening times both during the week and on a Saturday
- Reduction in level of Council funding of local bus services
- Additional highway's income from licensing and permits
- Exploring options for zonal parking charges
- Turning off alternate street lights or turning lights off in the early hours of the morning in some areas
There are also proposals for how the council, with its partners, can improve care for adults at home and services for children and young people including opening residential children's homes in 2023 and a gradual reduction in reliance on external placements where they are identified to be high cost with low outcomes for children.
The strategy also includes information about ongoing investment in achieving the Council's Corporate Plan, such as major road and digital infrastructure projects, improving school buildings and town centre regeneration.
Councillor Amanda Stott, chair of the council's finance sub-committee, said, "The council has a good track record of sound financial management and rigor in keeping to budget. However, the national and international economic situation over the past year has meant that we have to make significant changes to our financial strategy.
"The government, in its Autumn Statement, did provide for increased spending power for local councils, chiefly through increasing the level that councils can increase council tax. Councils can now increase council tax by 2.99 per cent plus an additional two per cent for adult social care – totalling 4.99 per cent.
"However, this, and other new funding announced in the Autumn Statement, is not sufficient to cover the inflationary and demand pressures. And the council is committed to continue to provide vital and valued services to Cheshire East residents.
"We will continue to scrutinise all spending and the way we deliver services to find further efficiencies – but more radical changes are required.
"While the proposed budget includes changes to some services, such as library opening hours, we are trying to retain those services that are most valued by our residents. We will consult further on specific changes if budget proposals are agreed that impact on services.
"We need residents' views on these proposals to inform our decisions. Please do take part in the budget consultation to help us get the balance right.
"We know that increasing local taxation puts further pressure on households' already-stretched budgets at a time of a cost-of-living crisis. We also anticipate that more people will be turning to council services to support them at this difficult time. So, we need to balance increasing council income locally, with ensuring that essential support services are sustainable.
"The council has a range of support in place for those most in need, including our council tax support scheme. The support scheme has been improved in recent years to support those most vulnerable in our society and, in the local government settlement, government has provided additional funding for the scheme. The council also provides an emergency assistance scheme and lots of advice and resources available across the borough on our cost-of-living webpages."
Following publication of the draft financial strategy, each of the council's service committees will consider the budget proposals at their public meetings through January and February. The budget for 2023/24, as part of the council's four-year financial strategy, will be set at a public meeting of full council on 22 February 2023.
The public consultation survey will be open for responses until 30 January 2023. Members of the public can attend the service committee meetings and full council and also speak with their ward councillor to comment on the budget proposals.
The draft financial strategy and consultation can be found at www.cheshireeast.gov.uk/BudgetEngagement
Information about service committee and council meetings, including agendas can be found at www.cheshireeast.gov.uk/council