Recruitment freeze and conference attendance ban part of ‘urgent measures’ to tackle council’s near £10m budget overspend
PUBLISHED: 14:00 17 November 2018
‘Urgent measures’ are to be taken by Devon County Council to reduce spending as the council faces a near £10m budget overspend.
Budget monitoring reports, showing the financial status six months into the year, which went in front of the cabinet on Wednesday, showed an £8.15m overspend was being forecast, while children’s services is set for a £9.9m overspend.
As a result, a temporary hold on filling backroom job vacancies has been implemented by county leaders in Devon, which includes delaying filling vacancies for two months after the postholder leaves.
A ban on all non-essential overtime and ending attendance at conferences with associated allowances unless they are externally funded has also been implemented.
The Cabinet was recommended by officers, and unanimously agreed, to take the ‘urgent measures’ to reduce overall council spending by £5 million when it met on Wednesday.
But they slammed central government for the chronic underfunding of councils which has seen them get close to breaking point.
Cllr Stuart Barker, cabinet member for resources management, said: “Like most other councils, we have an issue of rising demand and costs for children’s services, so we have to take some actions to be able to deliver those services into the future.
“We are not taking action on essential posts, so posts like children’s social workers won’t be affected. We are just delaying the replacement of vacant posts by around two months. If a vacancy arises then it will be filled, but just delayed by two months, and this is for non-essential staff.”
Cllr Barker added that despite the budget shortfall, the council is not in the position that Somerset or Northamptonshire have found themselves in, and they don’t intend to be.
He added: “I am as confident as I can be that we will meet the budget. We are going into winter now and the bad weather season. If we have a good winter then yes, we will meet the budget. If we have a harsh winter and incur additional costs that we are not expecting at the moment, then will have to reappraise the situation.”
Cllr Alan Connett, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, though said that the council should be anxious about budget pressures they were facing, but added: “Central Government can’t keep expected local government to tackle adult and children services without additional resources. Children coming into the service is rising, the cost of the service is rising, but government funding is reducing.
“It will lead to a perfect storm like we have seen in other councils and the government does need to put money in for essential services. And if they don’t, there will be another service failure, like Baby P, if not in this council but another.”
Phil Norrey, chief executive of Devon County Council, said he wanted to reassure councillors, staff and taxpayers about the impact of the savings strategy, saying it was ‘tight and good housekeeping’.
He said: “We are making sure that we have our house in order rather than panicking and walking over a cliff and the range of measures we are implementing we have looked at very carefully.
“There are pressures across the country and after around eight or nine years of extreme pressures on budgets, it has to come a point when we reach the end of the road on spending, and that will come in the next two or three years.”
The cabinet heard from County Treasurer Mary Davis that children’s social care is projected to overspend by £6.5 million mainly because of increased demand on residential placements and continuing pressure across disabled children’s short breaks service, social work teams and the Atkinson secure home in Exeter.
She added there are also increasing spending pressures in the High Needs’ element of the schools’ budget which helps pay for the care and education of the most vulnerable children, set for a £3.5m overspend, primarily because of rising numbers of pupils with Education, Health and Care plans and the cost of placements in independent special schools and further education colleges.
The cabinet heard that managers are taking action to try to reduce costs, which includes a plan to carry forward £2.4 million of the high needs’ overspend to next year’s budget which has yet to be agreed by the Devon Education Forum, and that proposals to reduce costs in high needs have already been worked up by council officers and the finance sub-group of the Forum.
Mrs Davis though told councillors that other departments are forecast to underspend or break even which helps to bring the overall prediction down to an overspend of £8.1million.
She said that Devon will receive an extra £3.6m from the Government for adult social care to help alleviate winter pressures on the NHS, and that the highways department is forecast to break even.
She added: “Like many other local authorities across the country, the council is grappling with high levels of demand for children’s services.
“Residential placements are proving particularly difficult to contain within the budget allocated and pressures against the high needs block of the dedicated schools grant are challenging to manage.
“The Leadership Group has developed several savings initiatives detailed within this report which are estimated to reduce expenditure by almost £5 million from that currently reported. Service managers within Education also continue to review options to deliver further reductions in expenditure within high needs.”