The Committee considered the Revenue Budget Strategy 2020/21 to 2022/23 endorsed by the Executive Board for consultation purposes at its meeting held on the 6th January 2020. The report provided Members with the current view of the Revenue Budget for 2020/2021 together with indicative figures for the 2021/2022 and 2022/2023 financial years based on officers’ projections of spending need taking into account the provisional settlement issued by Welsh Government (WG) on 16th December 2019.
The Head of Financial Services advised that whilst the announced provisional settlement represented an average increase of 4.3% across Wales on the 2019/20 settlement, Carmarthenshire’s increase been 4.4% (£11.548m) taking the Aggregate External Finance to £274.159m for 2020/21. However, new responsibilities and transfers into the settlement, including Teachers Pensions and Pay which were only partially funded within the settlement, accounted for some £5.8m or half the overall funding increase.
The report included details of the Welsh Government’s Service Specific Grants being provided alongside the provisional settlement at an all Wales level, with many remaining at a broadly similar level to 2018/19.
The Head of Financial Services referred to the increased spending pressures on the budget, as identified in 3.4 of the report, and advised that whilst those pressures totalled £13m, the total value for growth, based on current information was only £7.4m. A number of those pressures fell within the remit of the Community Scrutiny Committee and included decarbonisation proposals, Local Development Plan and the Ash Tree die back programme. A sum of £325k had also been built back into the programme to address the historic shortfall against budgeted forecast and actual income within the planning division.
In summary, the budget proposals assumed the full delivery of all savings proposals, together with the identification and delivery of the shortfall in savings proposals for the 2021/22, and 2022/23 financial years. Further cost reductions would need to be identified and/or larger council tax increases agreed to deliver a balanced budget for the latter two years. Furthermore, given the scale of the pressures and forecasted budget gap, proposed Council Tax increases had been maintained at the previous Medium Term Financial Plan levels of 4.89% in each of the three financial years, which offered some mitigation to the savings proposals.
In conclusion, the Committee was advised that due to the delay in receiving the provisional settlement and the Welsh Government’s final settlement not due to be published until the 25th February, 2020 the County Council would set its final budget on 3rd March, 2020.
The Committee thereupon considered the following detailed budget information appended to the Strategy relevant to its remit:
· Appendix A(i) – Efficiency summary for the Regeneration, Leisure, Planning and Non HRA Housing Services;
· Appendix A(ii) – Growth Pressures summary for the Regeneration and Planning Services (none for the Leisure and Non HRA Services;
· Appendix B – Budget monitoring report for the Regeneration, Leisure, Planning and Non HRA Housing Services;
· Appendix C – Charging Digest for the Regeneration, Leisure, Planning and Non HRA Housing Services;
The following questions/issues were raised on the report:-
· Reference was made to the provisional 4.4% settlement and its positive impact on the Council’s cost reduction programme resulting in the level of reductions to be made over the next three years falling by £8.697m from £25,115m to £16,418m. Clarification was sought on the potential impact future reducing WG settlements could have on the programme.
The Head of Financial Services confirmed the Welsh Government had not provided any indication of future settlement figures beyond the 2020/21 financial year making it difficult to construct multi-year budgets. Over recent years local government had witnessed a relaxation of public sector pay restraint, whilst receiving better than anticipated settlements. The authority was forecasting increased budgetary pressures over future years and if those persisted, for example, increased pay settlements and increases in the living wage, it would need to revisit and adjust its cost reduction programme in response.
· The Head of Financial Services in response to questions on the £10m increase in the budget strategy for education, confirmed that comprised part transfers in from the Welsh Government for pay and pensions and part from the improved settlement. He also confirmed that in relation to the existing £3m deficit in the Schools Delegated Budget, officers were working with the affected schools on addressing their deficits.
· In response to a question on inherent risks built into the budget strategy e.g. inflation, the Head of Financial Services confirmed the strategy reflected an inflationary rate of 2%, in line with the Bank of England Projections. However, as the largest proportion of the Council’s expenditure related to staff costs as well as commission care costs, which were linked to the living wage, pay growth posed more of a risk than inflation. For example the budget strategy published on the 30th December assumed an increase in the living wage to £8.63. However, on the 31st December, the U.K. Government announced it would increase to £8.72, an increase of .9p per hour or over £400k more than the budget estimate
· Reference was made to appendix A(i) and the managerial efficiencies identified in relation to the Pendine Outdoor Education Centre, St Clears Leisure Centre and Y Gât, St Clears. Clarification was sought on the current position in relation to their potential future development arising from the Committee’s recent site visits.
The Head of Leisure advised that discussions were continuing in relation to those facilities and reports thereon would be presented through the Council’s political process in due course.
· The Committee made reference to the council’s library and museums service and to its previous site visits thereto. Views were expressed, that due to the level of re-development undertaken / proposed for the service, it would be advantageous for those visits to be repeated.
· The Head of Leisure in response to a comment on the absence of a Tourist Information Centre in Llanelli advised that staff within Yr Hwb had been upskilled and could provide tourist advice. However, he could examine the need for signposting that provision with colleagues from the Tourism Team within Regeneration.
The Economic Development Manager advised that the Council had recently entered into a new tourist Project with Ireland called ‘Celtic Route’, funded via an ERDF Grant, aimed at encouraging people to visit parts of the County not normally visited and a web site advertising that project had recently been launched.
· Reference was made to the reduction in the Welsh Government’s free swim grant and the potential impact that could have on children’s health and ability to swim. A suggestion was made that the Council fund the grant reduction.
The Head of Leisure confirmed that in recent years the authority had received a reduction in the grant from the Welsh Government to participate in the free swim programme for the under 16’s and over 65’s. The recent reductions to that grant had resulted in the authority having to correspondingly reduce the number of public swimming times available for free swimming.
He also referred to the Committee’s previous debates on the cost to primary schools in having to take children swimming as part of the current Key Stage 2 curriculum. Whereas previously, that swimming had been free, a circa £2.10 charge per pupil had now been levied with the schools also having to pay transport costs. Although the new curriculum, to be introduced in 2021, did not explicitly require schools to provide swimming lessons, any reduction in that provision would not only impact on attendance levels at the Council’s swimming pools, and its pay swimming lessons.
The Committee having regard to the above referred to the £293k unallocated contingency sum within the budget strategy and expressed the view the Executive Board should consider utilising a portion of that sum to fund the estimated £150k cost to primary schools of providing swimming as part of the current KS2 curriculum.
UNANIMOUSLY RESOLVED that:-
The 2020/21 – 2022/23 Revenue Budget Strategy Consultation be received.
The Charging Digest for the Regeneration, Leisure, Planning and Non HRA Services, as detailed in Appendix C to the report be endorsed.
The Executive Board, as part of the budgetary consultation, be recommended to fund the estimated £150k cost to primary schools of providing swimming lessons as part of the Key Stage 2 Curriculum, with the cost thereof being met from the £293k unallocated contingency within the budget strategy.
The Committee undertake site visits to the Council’s libraries and museums.