Tis the season for raising council tax and closing budget gaps. Well in the world of local government it is anyway.
Council leaders, chief executives, s.151 officers and finance portfolio holders are currently knee deep in the most stressful fortnight of the municipal year as they pull together their final numbers and go into battle to get the votes at full council to pass the budget.
While these budget setting meetings are the culmination of months of diligent work, both behind the scenes and in committee meetings, no council leader can ever be one hundred percent sure that their budget is going to pass until the crucial vote is concluded. The author of this piece knows all too well how nerve wracking the days leading up to the council meeting can be if you have a slim majority. Hoping all week that the whole of your group will attend. Raising an eyebrow every time you see a member of the group’s name flash up on your phone wondering if they’ve fallen ill or decided that they can’t support some aspect of the budget. So, here’s to all those leaders who have successfully piloted their budget through council this week.
A good council budget should be wedded to the council’s strategy or corporate plan and part of a longer term financial strategy that focuses on supporting service delivery, funding the capital programme, achieving appropriate efficiencies wherever possible, maximising income streams and keeping council tax low. On the last point that has proven especially hard for social care authorities this year. The vast majority are raising council tax by 5% to keep adult social care services running while they wait for the government to make long awaited reforms to the sector.
Similarly many district and borough councils, stung by the steep rise in inflation and the after effects of the pandemic are taking the decision to raise their portion of the council tax by 3%. A number of councils have achieved lower rises with around ten others opting to freeze council tax at 22/23 levels. An achievement that many will envy.
While this year has been a challenging year it’s fair to say that this is not a new phenomenon. There’s always a temptation for councillors to assume that the budgetary obstacles that they face are harder to navigate than those faced by their predecessors. Older hands will recall the spending cuts and council tax rises that they had to make throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s. I can remember my immediate predecessor gently making that point to me when I was setting a budget a couple of years into my term as Leader. I would not be surprised if he’d had the same point made to him by his predecessor at some point.
Spare a thought for those councillors and officers where the council is in no overall control and amendments need to be wrangled over right up until the final few minutes and during adjournments. One former officer at a large unitary who will remain nameless, recalls a budget setting meeting during which council officers had to shuttle throughout the night between three rooms containing three fairly evenly sized political groups carrying offers and counteroffers in order to get a budget over the line.
Ultimately the budget setting process will tend to be complex, but not necessarily complicated. It is the most important council meeting of the year and from it the direction for the next year will be set, both for the council officers delivering the programme and for the council taxpayers funding it.
At Cratus our public affairs team will be providing analysis of budgets and an evaluation of themes to our clients. Our advisory team is on hand to help councils and cabinets, particularly newly elected ruling groups, with navigating this important, and often nail-biting process.