Chesterfield council’s budget proposals will mean ‘£3m of deep cuts and savings’
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The Labour-controlled council has stated, like many other local authorities nationwide, that it is facing serious funding gaps on its budgets due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis and exceptionally high inflation rates and it has revealed an estimated budget shortfall of £4m in 2024/25 which is expected to increase in future financial years.
Even though the council has stated that it aims to protect essential services and continue supporting the most vulnerable despite expected cutbacks, opposition Liberal Democrat Leader, Cllr Paul Holmes, claims the council’s budget plans will result in £3m of cuts and savings that will heavily impact residents.
Cllr Holmes said: “Chesterfield Borough Council’s cabinet meeting has proposals for up to £3m of deep cuts and savings, as just the first step towards meeting a £4m deficit or overspend for 2024/25 and rising to £6m after that.
“It is astonishing to hear Labour councillors claim that the cash crisis is absolutely nothing to do with them. They say it is all down to factors such as Covid – which was rampant two years ago – or inflation and energy prices – which soared last year but have in fact slowly fallen this year.
“So how would they cause the sudden and unexpected deficit increases revealed recently?
“These issues have indeed affected everyone, every individual, every business, every council. But the vast majority have adjusted their spending before they fell off a financial cliff edge and were forced to make sudden and deep cuts.
“These sudden large-scale cuts, plus later ones, will have a major impact on local people and on what the council does.”
Chesterfield Borough Council – which has stated that it has already made substantial savings over the last 18 months – scheduled a report to be presented to the council’s cabinet on November 14 setting out its financial challenges with saving plans alongside its target to set a balanced budget for the 2024/25 financial year and with plans for a public ‘Budget Conversation’ and public consultation activities.
The council previously announced, in July, that its forecasted budget shortfalls at that time stood at an estimated £2.5m for the 2024/25 financial year with an expected further rise to an estimated £3.4m for the 2026/27 financial year.
It has since stated that it aims to rationalise its assets, review services, transform how it delivers services, make better efficiency savings, and increase its income where possible and its latest report puts forward a range of proposals to help meet its legal duty of setting a balanced budget for the 2024/25 financial year when the council meets in February 2024.
The Budget Strategy Implementation Plan report recommends that the council considers: How tourist information services are delivered; How some council community buildings are used; The levels of funding provided to a range of external organisations and subsidies for outdoor sports and leisure activities; How council venues are managed to ensure commercial opportunities and income are maximised; The use of digital technology to further improve the efficiency of customer services; The council’s events programme; And the management and maintenance of parks and open spaces.
Labour Councillor Amanda Serjeant, council deputy leader and cabinet member for finance and asset management, has also previously stated the council will consequently have to reduce its workforce by looking at voluntary redundancies and voluntary retirement options, while avoiding the need for compulsory redundancies, and this may also mean stopping the delivery of some services and possibly reducing others.
Cllr Holmes believes the Labour-controlled council shares responsibility for its financial plight after he claims it used money from its Reserves and this pushed up this year’s budget deficit.
He said the council originally announced, last February, a £1m deficit for 2023/4, and the authority addressed this shortfall by using Reserves instead of making cuts which pushed up this year’s deficit.
Cllr Holmes also claims the council increased staffing every year from 684 in 2017 to 840 in 2022 which resulted in further large outlay to meet salaries.
In addition, Cllr Holmes claims the council has also been running two loss-making cafes including the Market Hall cafe, and that it has lost council house rent opportunities because so many council houses have been left unoccupied, while thousands of pounds has also been lost in outlay and lost rent on empty retail units in a town centre building.
He said: “All these financial decisions and more were made by Labour councillors. None of those listed are anything to do with the Government, Covid, inflation or energy prices.”
Prospective Parliamentary candidate, Ian Barfield, of the Chesterfield Liberal Democrats, also fears the town centre will suffer from planned cuts with a fall in the council’s car park income, and a fall in rental income from The Pavements Shopping Centre.
However, Cllr Serjeant has said the council’s financial position is largely due to economic factors outside of its control and Government underfunding.
The council has argued that the financial impact of Covid-19 has also strongly affected councils alongside a rising demand for services due to the cost-of-living crisis, and a period of exceptionally high inflation which means the cost of buying goods, services and contracts has risen, while other income streams have also reduced.
Cllr Serjeant has also previously stated in August that Cllr Holmes and his Liberal Democrat colleagues had chosen to absolve themselves of any responsibility by abstaining on the Budget Strategy without proposing any alternatives to protect services.
She has also stressed that an Institute of Fiscal Studies made a reference that the Local Government funding regime is broken which did not surprise her after a decade of Government austerity, the budgetary impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation and an unprecedented demand for council services fuelled by the cost-of-living crisis.
Cllr Jean Innes, cabinet member for housing, has also previously said that tackling the backlog and high number of empty council properties will be a main priority for 2023/24 after a large amount of work is required in many of the properties.
The council has stressed that while working to balance the budget it will also be working to continue its growth strategy to ensure the borough continues to thrive.
Councillor Serjeant said: “As community leaders it is our duty to manage our way through the significant financial challenges that we currently face and be prepared to take the difficult decisions that are needed to ensure the council is able to maintain essential services and support the most vulnerable in our communities.
“If only we had the crystal ball of the Liberal Democrats to have foreseen a global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and a range of other global and national factors that have had such a detrimental impact not just on the finances of this council but on the finances of all councils. This is a sector wide issue affecting councils of all political colours including many where the Liberal Democrats are themselves in control.
“Cllr Holmes seems to conveniently forget that in February 2022, the council set a balanced budget for the best part of four financial years, and that in the previous eleven financial years the council had not only balanced its books year in year out but prudently built up its reserves to be able to at least in part buffer itself from future economic shocks.
“But we could never have foreseen the scale and breadth of the economic shocks that have hit the sector so hard since February 2022 nor the pace at which they have landed.
“In these unprecedented times I would suggest it is the role of local leaders to be open and honest with the people of Chesterfield, which is why we will be setting out in the coming weeks our savings plans to achieve a balanced budget for the coming financial year 2024/25. We very much hope that our residents and businesses will engage with the council’s ‘budget conversation’ and other public consultation activities.”