Warwickshire County Council budget 2024-25: No budget bunfight as eyes turn to Westminster
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Political rivals parked the annual budget bunfight to argue for better and longer-term funding from central government as Warwickshire County Council set its budget for 2024-25.
As expected, the original budget put forward by the Conservatives was voted through and while Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party filed counter proposals, the differences, particularly on key and under-pressure services, were negligible.
Any tinkering around those edges was voted down anyway with blanket Tory support for the cabinet’s plan – the framework put forward by the team of councillors that oversee major service areas.
It meant a 4.99 per cent increase in council tax, the maximum allowed without a referendum, which adds more than £80 per year to the bill for an average – Band D – property for the county’s portion of the bill alone.
Two per cent of that has to be allocated to adult social care, which is in for a £26.7 million boost to handle increased demand caused by population growth, people living longer and fewer people being able to afford to fund their own care.
£8.2 million extra has been found to cover the added costs associated with placements for children in care over the next five years, while home-to-school transport costs require an added £12.5 million, £5.7 million of which is a ‘catch-up’ fund to cover the impact of inflation across 2023-24.
The refreshed five-year financial plan also features more than £64 million worth of savings or projected added income, although the most controversial potential cuts, including children and families centres, recycling centres and reducing winter road gritting and school crossing patrols, were avoided.
The political views
There was broad acknowledgement in the build up that there was precious little – if any – wiggle room.
Instead, attention turned to the annual wait on and scrap for government grants and the under-resourcing of thorny areas such as delivering for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and adult social care.
Deputy leader of the Labour group Councillor Sarah Feeney (Benn) said: “I absolutely agree with many colleagues that single-year settlements are incredibly destructive.
“We need better commitments to local government so we can better plan our spending.
“I also agree with Councillor (Jerry) Roodhouse’s call for further representations to government and to Warwickshire MPs, clearly laying out the challenges that all residents face and that we as a council need more equitable funding to ensure they can flourish.”
She added: “All groups have had to make incredibly difficult decisions about where money should be used.
“We need proper funding, proper settlements and at least some percentage increase in government grants.”
Liberal Democrat leader Councillor Jerry Roodhouse (Eastlands) remarked: “It must be the quickest budget meeting I have ever attended.
“The burden on local government has got ever heavier, and it doesn’t matter who is down in Westminster. Experience tells me, and as the leader has said, local government always seems to get kicked every time by whatever is going on down in Westminster.
“The longer I stay in local government, the more I know it is the only place that can actually deliver the services on the ground – just look at what happened with Covid and the health service.”
He added: “One of the biggest things that could be done by whoever is in government – please, please, please – is to give us a multi-year settlement. Give us some stability.
“It doesn’t have to be everything, you don’t need to give us all the treasure, just give us three or four years, allow us to actually do things.
“The really big concern is the societal change with the younger generation, there are things going on that we don’t understand as a local authority.
“That will bring ever-increasing pressures on demand-led services and I don’t know how you are going to bring the funding in to cover those if the government does not step up and start taking it seriously, the investment that needs to be made in local government and local democracy.
“If it carries on like this – whether it is a Labour government or whatever – what is the point in coming here? There will be nothing to debate. You might as well just allocate the money nationally and that’s it.
“Then you lose local democracy. Is that what you really want? I don’t think so.
“Therefore, the question has to be around reinvigorating that, and it has to be done through the Local Government Association, the County Council Network and the District Councils’ Network. There has to be that rallying cry around the flag of local democracy, local accountability and community leadership, which is what we are here to do while the delivering services people want."
Councillor Peter Butlin (Con, Admirals & Cawston), deputy leader of the council and portfolio holder for finance and property, said: “I am always mindful that to deliver services you need money. If you don’t have stable money, you cannot deliver them.
“One or two councils have fallen foul of that inability to deliver services due to running out of money. I am glad to say Warwickshire is not in that position and while I am in charge, it never will be.
“The differences between our budgets have never been closer, I think we have got it down to a couple of hundred thousand between all four of us so I am not going to home in on the differences between us because there are none when it comes to delivering those key services.
“I agree with Jerry, I would love a three-year settlement. We could all plan, us and the opposition groups, as to where we go with this council. At the moment, elections are getting in the way and no one is prepared to go beyond the election, for obvious reasons.
“I wish they had done it before but that is where we are.
“We also need some clear guidance on one or two major issues in legislation and the way in which we deliver SEND and adult social care.
“For several years and several governments now, central government has been unable to tackle these prickly questions. All we have had are sticking plasters, not permanent solutions and that’s the problem.
“We are in a situation where we have to play the cards we are dealt. Hopefully, we have dealt the cards as fairly and appropriately as we can.”