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Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Nottinghamshire County Council finances improving despite Covid shortfall

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Millions of pounds of savings are likely to be made at Nottinghamshire County Council over the next few years, due to a £28.3 million budget shortfall.

However, finance chief Councillor Richard Jackson said the situation was improving, and there was a ‘real recognition’ from the Government of the pressures councils were facing.

It comes after a warning that only one in five councils expects to be able to set a balanced budget this year – a legal requirement.

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Councillor Jackson, who represents Toton, Chilwell and Attenborough for the Conservatives, said his council was in that minority in that it did expect to be able to set a balanced budget.

However financial papers show Conservative-controlled Nottinghamshire County Council expects to face a £28.3 million deficit by 2023-24.

They show the cost of COVID to the council was expected to be £66.8 million this financial year, whereas £47.1 million has been received from the Government.

That comes after a decade of austerity, in which funding to councils has been significantly reduced, and much of the easier cost-saving measures have already been taken.

He said he thought the situation was better than they thought it could have been but was still serious.

He said: “We’ve been successful in lobbying the Government, and successfully brought in additional funding to cover a lot of our COVID costs.

“We’re looking at £66.8 million in total of additional costs due to COVID, we’ve had £47.1 million in, we’ve obviously used our reserves, we’ve looked at everything else we’re doing and generated underspend elsewhere.

“So it gives us a balanced budget for next year (financial year 2021-22) with a modest council tax increase (1.99 percent).

“The following year is where we will need to continue to lobby the Government for funding throughout the next financial year.

“At the moment, we’ve had the fourth tranche of COVID funding, which is very welcome, but obviously additional costs are going to carry on for the next 12 months at least.”

Asked about the financial situation the council would find itself in, trying to set a budget in two or three years time, when the projected shortfall is currently £28.3 million, he said: “I think we’ve got to be successful in lobbying the Government.

“The third tranche of funding (to councils) was billed as the third and final one, and then we had a fourth.

“It strikes me that that’s a recognition that they’re going to continue.

“We’re submitting our (COVID cost) returns to the Government monthly, and I think it is being listened to.

“There is a good lobby, with the County Council Network and the Local Government Association, so I think we have more confidence that there will be more Government funding through into next year as long as the crisis is with us and we’re dealing with it.

“But we’ve found innovative ways of saving the county council money in the past, and we’ll just have to continue doing that in the future.

“What we’ve been able to do this financial year is safeguard services.

“So there are no significant service cut reductions for the next financial year.

“I don’t think anyone knows how long the crisis is going to be with us.

“All of our big and expensive services are the social services, children and adults, and obviously the cost of delivering those safely to people has rocketed dramatically, as has the need during the crisis as well, and no one knows how long it’s going to last for.

“We started the year in a better position, before the COVID crisis, we have always projected a balanced budget, and a lot of similar authorities haven’t, so I think that’s testament to the way the council has been run over the last few years that we’re in that position.

“The better position you are in before the problem, the better placed you are to weather it.

“We also had good reserves in place, which we’ve been criticised for in the past, but we’ve absolutely needed this year and will need next year.

“It’s an easy thing for oppositions to criticise, and tell us we should be spending it, but I think it shows that it’s right to keep that level of reserves, because this is exactly the time they’re needed for.”

He said while he was comfortable with the amount left in reserve, the council plans to pay back over the next three to four years what has and will be taken out (£10 million), because ‘in the long run we wouldn’t want to live with the amount of reserves we’ve had to take out for now’.

Asked about how he expected the council to be able to plug the £28.3 million shortfall by 2023-24, he said: “There are ways of working that have changed over the last nine months, which a lot of people are finding work very well for them.

“I think we can generate significant savings from that. You can imagine what we spend on our office estate every year, so we’re certainly looking to renew our Investing in Nottinghamshire plan, which is the programme which was rationalising the offices, and certainly, that can look to generate more savings from a different way of working that actually suits a lot of people.

One factor impacting the council’s books was capital receipts – essentially the sale of land and property – which had been forecast to bring in £6.9 million this year, but has so far only produced £0.5 million.

But Councillor Jackson didn’t think this was an indication of the property and development markets slowing down, but more an accident of timing, and with several sales in the pipeline which would bring that figure up, he was not overly concerned at the figure.

He said: “It’s more or less been down to a slow down in completions over the last few months.

“That’s only been for COVID and lockdown reasons, it’s not been because of a long-term downturn in demand, because as we’ve seen very clearly there’s a good long-term demand for property.

“We’re seeing a delay in getting things over the line, but we’re not losing people who are going to be buying property.”

There remains a great deal of uncertainty in council finances across the country, with several key Government acts still outstanding, including the social care green paper, the fair funding review and the comprehensive spending review.

Asked about whether the ongoing uncertainty in Government funding was frustrating him, Councillor Jackson said: “I think the vast majority of what’s happening at the moment is dealing with the pandemic.

“The mood music we’re getting from the Government is giving us cause for optimism, on the spending review, on the settlement for next year, so I think it’s just understandable with everything that’s happening, you can understand perhaps why we take a slight backseat.”