Labour-controlled Chesterfield Borough Council has stated that it is facing serious funding gaps on its budgets – like many other local authorities nationwide – due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis and exceptionally high inflation rates – but it has stressed that it aims to protect essential services and continue supporting the most vulnerable.
Following austerity, uncertainty over future Government funding, the budgetary impacts from Covid-19 and high inflation, the council has announced that is facing dramatic budget shortfalls, and in its most current forecast it has revealed an estimated budget shortfall of £4m in 2024/25 which is expected to increase in future financial years.
However, the council – which states it has already made substantial savings over the last 18 months – is due to present a hard-hitting report 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 plans for a public ‘Budget Conversation’ and public consultation activities.
Councillor Amanda Serjeant, council deputy leader and cabinet member for finance and asset management, said: “This national economic crisis is not of our making – the position we find ourselves in is largely due to economic factors outside of our control, compounded by historic and piecemeal Government underfunding of the sector.
“However, we do have control over how we respond and as community leaders it is our duty to manage this stark reality and be prepared to take the difficult decisions that will be needed to put the council on a sustainable financial footing for the future.
“The council has always been committed to finding new ways of working, and to making sure our services are running as efficiently as possible. But despite these actions, the sheer size and scale of what are unprecedented financial challenges mean there is still a significant amount of work to do.
“Next week, the council’s cabinet will be starting to take some of these tough decisions – looking at ways in which we can deliver some services differently and, where appropriate, how we could raise more income in some areas to help protect the essential services that people rely on now more than ever.”
Many local authorities nationwide have been affected by ongoing risks and uncertainties with future Government funding which is already less than half of that which was provided to councils in 2010, according to Chesterfield Borough Council, while other income streams have also reduced.
The long-term 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.
Chesterfield Borough 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.
Cllr Serjeant 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.
The Deputy Leader has acknowledged that some difficult decisions lay ahead but she stressed that the council stands ready to do all it can to protect essential services and support the most vulnerable.
Chesterfield Borough Council aims to rationalise its assets, review services, transform how it delivers services, make better efficiency savings, and increase its income where possible.
The latest report puts forward a range of proposals to help the council find further savings which aim to go a significant way towards meeting its legal duty of setting a balanced budget for the 2024/25 financial year when the council meets in February 2024.
A wide range of new savings proposals have been developed in line with the council’s Budget Strategy which was approved at a Full Council meeting in July.
The Budget Strategy Implementation Plan report recommends that ‘approval in principle’ is given for council officers to carry out reviews on a range of services and ways of working and they include addressing the matters below:
How tourist information services are delivered, including the use of the Visitor Information Centre in Rykneld Square; How some council community buildings are used, namely Hasland Village Hall, the Assembly Rooms, and Revolution House; The levels of funding provided to a range of external organisations, including community and voluntary groups, and subsidies applied to the running of outdoor sports and leisure activities; How council venues, including the Winding Wheel Theatre, Healthy Living Centre and Queen’s Park Sports Centre are managed to ensure commercial opportunities and income are maximised; The use of digital technology, to further improve the efficiency of customer facing services; The council’s events programme, to make sure events are effectively supporting the town centre and parks while providing value for money; The management and maintenance of parks and open spaces considering whether there are changes the council can make to reduce costs.
The proposals will be split into two stages with stage one involving operational decisions by council officers and delegated cabinet decisions that will have no impact on service delivery and will be based on factors like budget reviews and how grant funding is used.
Stage two proposals, subject to cabinet approval, will need to be developed in more detail and will involve engagement or consultation with service users, stakeholders, staff and trade unions before any final decisions are made.
The report also seeks approval to develop detailed proposals for the possible introduction of charging for garden waste collection, and a review of how the residents’ town centre car parking scheme currently runs.
Cllr Serjeant added: “It’s important to acknowledge that Chesterfield Borough Council has gone over and above for our communities, providing more services and support than many other district and borough councils.
“We’re proud of this, and the impact it’s had – but in light of the serious financial challenges facing us, regrettably we won’t be able to sustain this level of service in the future. The current national economic crisis is fundamentally impacting what councils will be able to deliver in the coming years – and without significant Government intervention or a reform of how local government is financed, we have no choice but to review which services we continue to deliver, and how we deliver them, even when this presents difficult choices.”
The report also proposes the launch of a ‘Budget Conversation’ with residents, tenants, businesses, community and voluntary organisations urging people to have their say on the council’s budget strategy.
If approved, the ‘Budget Conversation’ will open on November 14 and run for a month and it will help shape where under-pressure council budgets might be spent in the future.
The council will also run engagement and consultation activities, where appropriate, ahead of making decisions on specific savings proposals.
Cllr Serjeant said: “After we have listened – after four weeks – we will put that together and that will inform the decision-making the council and cabinet will make.”
She added that the council wants to hear from people and she recognised that there will be some communities that will want to help and that some may not have the capacity to do so.
The council also stressed that alongside its need to balance the budget it will be working to continue its growth strategy to ensure the borough remains resilient and continues to thrive.