The leader of financially squeezed Derbyshire County Council has said the council has begun adapting and implementing necessary budget cuts and saving proposals while pleading with the government to step up to the challenges faced by councils nationwide.
Councillor Barry Lewis has been working alongside fellow councillors, officers and staff at the Conservative-controlled council in an almost state of emergency since the shocking announcement in September last year, that the authority was facing a forecast £46.4m budget shortfall during its 2023-24 financial year.
The council has since reduced this deficit to around £34.1m with some tough decisions and cost-saving measures. These are now being backed up with further hard-hitting plans to balance a forecast £39.5m budget deficit for the 2024-25 financial year as the authority appears to be fighting a war on two fronts.
But defiant county council leader, Cllr Lewis, told a recent budget cabinet meeting: “Necessity is the mother of innovation and we shall rise to the challenge as a county.”
And following the same meeting, he outlined the enormous practical and emotional challenges faced by councils not just in the immediate future but for years to come if the Conservative Government does not do more to support local authorities.
He said: “Local authorities are not just about the statutory services that we must supply. It’s about going that extra mile and sadly we are faced with a situation where we have to re-think it all and there is an opportunity in adversity about how we do these things as a local authority and how we can do it differently. It may not be as generous as before but we will try to do it.”
The county council and local authorities’ recent challenges have followed the government’s 2010 austerity policy with reduced funding and restricted spending and this has been followed by a perfect economic storm after the enormous financial strain of the Covid-19 pandemic, all leading to high inflation rates, a cost of living crisis, rising costs and growing demands on services.
Some have also blamed the impact of Brexit on trade arrangements and worldwide conflicts in both Ukraine and more recently the Middle East as influential factors upon both government and local government finances.
Cllr Lewis added: “The difference on this occasion is we are going to have to squeeze the pips harder but we will keep innovating and stretching the limits but it is going to be more challenging and there is a bigger push back with strangled budgets from Government.”
The Conservative-controlled council has always argued that it has been a well-managed and efficient local authority but Cllr Lewis admits that the latest financial pressures have caught the council by surprise.
Cllr Lewis explained that the government stacked-up trillions of pounds in debt after what he referred to as “largesse” during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns and that was inevitably going to lead to an escalating inflation rate.
He said: “It was a shock but there was never any intention to hide it under a cushion and we had to go public with that and we had to make people aware we are facing this situation and let the organisation know, and let everyone know what that means to the local authority.”
But Cllr Lewis added that the priority was always going to be ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable residents would be met ahead of all else and that included the elderly, the infirm and children and ensuring the county’s highways are safe.
The council has also repeatedly highlighted how adult and children’s social care are two areas in desperate need for more support and Government funding not least because of the increasing costs of child care from private providers.
Cllr Lewis has lobbied government for a cap on the profits of private providers of childcare after he has accused some of alleged ‘profiteering’, alleged ‘exploitation’ of desperate youngsters, and an alleged failure to put profits back into continued care.
He said: “Making sure young people are well looked after and ensuring the elderly and infirm are all looked after and making sure our roads are safe to drive on – they are our prime jobs as local authorities. If we get that wrong, the implications are almost unthinkable.”
Cllr Lewis added: “I have every sympathy with the Government but they need to understand these services are important.
“Government has been majorly distracted by navel-gazing with all kinds of issues instead of focusing on what is good for the nation, the millions of residents who rely on services and sensible government delivering on a daily basis.”
The council’s budget saving proposals are likely to mean changes in the way services are provided for the elderly, disabled and children, and it has already stopped non-essential spending and implemented a hiring freeze, reduced residents’ capital entitlement limit for adult care from £50,000 to £23,250 and has increased the cost of a school meal by about 41per cent.
Other saving proposals include changes to waste disposal, libraries and heritage, and converting the council’s multi-million pound County Hall building, at Matlock, into a hotel, residential space, and a new office site.
Budget savings proposals for 2024-25 include: Redesigning five short stay residential homes and four day centres for people with learning disabilities; Redesigning 16 council elderly residential care homes and ten day care centres; Redesigning council care arrangements within extra care settings for older people; Reviewing the delivery of children’s centres and reviewing the children’s services Early Help service; Changing policy for post-16 home to school transport; And reviewing residential short-break and support services for disabled children.
Others include: Restricting or charging for waste disposal of tyres and asbestos and generating income by allowing small businesses to use centres for a fee; Modernising the way the council delivers its library and heritage services; Reviewing the usage and options for Derbyshire County Council’s County Hall offices; And ceasing the production of the Derbyshire Now magazine and reducing the council’s countryside grounds maintenance budget.
Derbyshire County Council has also approved a 4.99per cent increase on its part of the council tax rates for 2024-25 which means about an additional £19.5m in council tax income for 2024-25 and in future years for the authority to support vital services.
Cllr Lewis said: “We got into this because we want to be able to contribute to the well-being of our local society and look after our residents.
“We care deeply about what happens to our residents and care deeply about our county so when we are faced with something like reducing or cutting a service we do feel that, because that is not why we got into this job.
“Yes we wanted to make Local Government more effective but it is getting harder and harder and it is a case of where do we go next?
“If this continues we need to save more money and whether it is our Government or a Labour Government coming in they will face more challenges.
“I do not think anything will change overnight but it does not make us any less passionate about what we do which is to serve our residents.
“We want our roads looked after, and we want our elderly looked after and we are just people like residents in Derbyshire but we are charged with this extra responsibility.”
The council has also stressed redundancies among its workforce cannot be ruled out as it examines retraining, redeployment, voluntary redundancies and leaving empty posts unfilled.
Cllr Lewis said: “Inevitably this is going to affect staff in the organisation but what we have always been good at is going down the route of looking at retirement and voluntary redundancies and redeployment and we will always focus on that. But it is inevitable there will be a reduction.”
A £64bn Government funding settlement for local authorities was announced at the end of last year but this only represented a 6.5per cent increase instead of a desired ten per cent increase and this left councils increasing council tax rates.
But the Government has recently agreed that £500m from an additional £600m Government handout for English councils will be earmarked for adult and children’s social care.
And Cllr Lewis is also hopeful that a multi-billion pound money-spinning devolution deal launching a new East Midlands Combined County Authority from March with its own new mayor by May will help alleviate some of the financial pressures faced by the county council.
While councils across the East Midlands will continue to oversee many public services, the new East Midlands Combined County Authority would deal with broader issues like transport, regeneration and employment.
The new combined authority may also bring in around £4bn of funding for the East Midlands which the county council and others feel is necessary to address decades of under-funding compared to other areas.
Cllr Lewis said: “It’s going to get more challenging as we move through the future years if the Government does not address the funding shortfall at the moment.”
The county council leader added that there is about a £4bn shortfall across the sector as a whole but he added: “We will keep banging the drum to get more funding into the system.”
Derbyshire County Council’s budget plan is due to be considered by all councillors from all political parties at a Full Council meeting on February 14 before it is finalised and to be implemented from the beginning of the 2024-25 financial year on April 1.