'Unprecedented level of investment in services needed next year'

Money is available to help small businesses. Picture: Pixabay

Devon County Council are asking householders for an extra 2.99 per cent this year - Credit: Archant

The budget the county council put to bed the other week is my 13th as leader and quite possibly the most difficult.

We are facing a perfect storm. Obviously, the effects of the pandemic are still being felt in every home, in every business and throughout our economy. Our staff have been working very differently but that hasn't stopped us facing a big increase in the number of children, older people and vulnerable residents who need our care and support. 

It was a similar situation last year. But our calculations this year have been compounded by the cost of living crisis.

Every year we have to strike a balance between an ever-increasing demand for our services, which requires more expenditure and levying a council tax that is fair and just. That's why this year we have decided for the first time to dip into our reserves - something we didn't do, even at the height of austerity.

Every prudent council keeps money in its reserves. They are effectively our savings for a rainy day. And as my colleague and the Cabinet member responsible for finance, Phil Twiss said recently it hasn't just been raining recently but, throughout the pandemic, we've had near monsoon conditions.

So we will be taking almost £23 million from our reserves to support services this year and that will allow us to levy the lowest increase in council tax for seven years. We are asking householders for an extra 2.99 per cent this year which is well below the current rate of inflation and less than the 3.1 per increase in the State pension and most age-related benefits that people will receive in April. That means an extra 87p per week for the average Band D property.

It will help us to increase our revenue budget from £580 million to over £629 million for the financial year 2022/23. That's a rise of 8.4 per cent.

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That includes an extra £29.6 million for adult care and health, an increase of 10.5 per cent, and £17.1million more for children’s services, which is a rise of 10.8 per cent.

Devon County Council provides services to around 800,000 people and 77 per cent of our spending goes on the young, the old and the vulnerable.

You may ask why we have agreed above-inflation increases for adult care and children. Unlike national Government, which can borrow to finance current spending, we have to set a balanced budget by law. Even before the pandemic hit, we were facing an ever-increasing demand for services for vulnerable people and that has grown even more in these past two years.

But even with this increased spending, we will still have to make savings of some £30 million and we have had some very difficult choices to make.

I’m going to finish this week by quoting our director of finance Angie Sinclair - a paid officer and not a politician - who told us: “The pandemic has placed immense strain on the health and social care system. Demand for services, significant cost increases and the increasing intensity of care required is causing huge pressure on the budget. This coupled with the need to invest in and improve our services to children has meant investment of almost £80 million is needed in these services next year – this level of investment is unprecedented.

“The spending review and the settlement has brought an increase in funding for the authority but not sufficient to cover the increased costs we are facing. Savings of more than £30 million are required along with a significant contribution from our reserves in order to set a balanced budget for 2022/23.”