Councillor Craig Browne, Deputy Leader of Cheshire East Council, was the guest speaker at the first Wilmslow Civic Trust meeting of 2023 on the evening of Wednesday 4th January which was attended by approximately 50 residents.
Trust members were brought up-date with the challenges facing Cheshire East Council, including the Borough's changing demographic position and financial climate.
Councillor Craig Browne told wilmslow.co.uk "I explained that Cheshire East as a borough has been a rapidly changing place over the last few years and figures from the 2021 UK census show that the population has grown by about 8% since 2011, which makes Cheshire East Council the third largest unitary in the northwest and fifteenth largest in England; we are predicted to continue to have an ageing population structure, as well a higher proportion of single parent households.
"To add to this, we have a smaller than average proportion of our population who are of working age and this is predicted to fall by a further 7.4% by 2038; this means 16,757 fewer people in the borough to carry the financial burden of paying for adult social care or children's services.
"Cheshire East Council is responsible for delivering over 500 services to almost 400,000 residents. In 2023/24, three quarters of the costs of these services will be met from Council Tax receipts, whereas ten years ago, Council Tax only had to cover about 60% of these costs, with almost 20% being covered by the Revenue Support Grant (RSG). The RSG was an unrestricted grant which central government used to provide to local authorities to help them cover the costs of service delivery and in 2013/14 this grant was worth c.£56m to the Council; today it is worth zero and what has been happening between 2013/14 and 2023/24 is that the RSG has been phased out and Council Tax increases have had to make up the difference.
"This is why, over recent years, residents may have noticed their Council Tax bills going up at the same time that council services have had to be scaled back. Frequently, residents have also been surprised to discover how much of their Council Tax has to be spent on Adult Social Care & Children's Services (around 60p in every £1 raised) and how little is available to be spent on Highways (just 3.5p in every £1 raised)."
He added "Over recent years, Cheshire East Council has introduced the Flexilink bus service (2019), improved and extended the 130 bus service into Alderley Park and onto Wythenshawe Interchange (2021), invested an extra £7m in road repairs (2022), approved the SADPD and returned previously allocated development sites back to the greenbelt, completed the Wilmslow Cycle Way (2020), Poynton Relief Road (2023) and is in the process of rolling out 30 new Electric Vehicle Charging Points across council-owned car parks; however, these remain challenging times to balance the budget and make ends meet. Nationally, inflation is running at over 10% and with an annual budget of £330m, this means additional cost pressures in the region of £33m.
"The government has said that we can raise Council Tax by 5%, but this only generates about £13m and leaves us with a funding gap of £20m next year. We are also struggling to recruit and retain officers, because at Cheshire East Council the salaries we pay fall between the lowest quartile and the lowest decile compared with other councils across the country.
"We are not on our own; other councils are in a similar position, except that in many cases they are more established and with deeper financial reserves to draw upon. By contrast, Cheshire East Council has only about £14.5m in reserve (between 2019-2022 we managed to increase this from about £12m), which equates to about two week's running costs for the organisation. This is why the cross-party Local Government Association has been lobbying the government on behalf of all local authorities for a fairer funding settlement that reflects the real cost of delivering demand-led services, such as Adult Social Care and Children's Services, which councils have a statutory responsibility to provide."
At the end of my presentation, Councillor Browne answered questions from members of Wilmslow Civic Trust on a range of issues including: the culture of the council, recruitment and retention of council officers, the change in governance arrangements at the council, works to the pumping station on the A34 Pendleton Way, as well as highways repairs and budget setting.
Stuart Kinsey, Chair of the Civic Trust, "My his own understanding of the Borough's position had been greatly improved by what he heard in the meeting and i agree with Councillor Browne that it is important for groups such as the Wilmslow Civic Trust, to work in partnership with councillors in helping the local authority to deliver the services that are expected of the Council, perhaps also making a financial contribution to local services when appropriate."