By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
A £50million black hole in a council’s budget over the next 12 months has led to fears of tax rises.
Kent County Council (KCC) is facing a high debt of around £50.6million by June 2023, which is likely to increase further amid the global inflationary crisis and major energy bills hike.
The deficit is around five times higher than projections made in September 2021 – which was closer to £10million – with fears from opposition groups it may lead to taxes raised to the “maximum”.
KCC’s cabinet member for finance, Cllr Peter Oakford (Con), described the excess spending as an “extremely serious cause for concern” at a County Hall meeting last week.
The Tunbridge Wells member has lobbied for immediate action to reduce the deficit. Cllr Oakford said: “This is probably the most challenging forecast the council has seen in recent years.
“Some urgent and very difficult decisions will need to be taken to address this.”
Opposition groups, including the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, have described the financial position as “abysmal” and “ominous”.
The “most significant” risk to KCC’s budget will be to support special educational needs pupils (SEND), it was revealed at last Thursday’s (Sep 29) cabinet meeting at Maidstone County Hall.
This has been forecast to increase by £47m over the next 12 months, from £101m in June 2022 to £148m in June 2023.
Other high-spend areas include education and adult social care. Around 50% of KCC’s total reserves is being allocated to cover the growing costs.
Green Party leader Paul Stepto described the situation as “ominous” as he has called for more government financial aid, fearing that council tax could be raised “to the maximum”.
After the cabinet meeting, he added: “The main action I would like to see at KCC is to lobby central government to give us more money.
“The government gave around £340m in 2015/16 and this year has been going down to £197m.”
KCC opposition leader Anthony Hook, of the Lib Dems, says proposed solutions must be presented to KCC’s full council as soon as possible.
He said: “The council has to save frontline services, such as adult social care and children’s services.
“The cost of materials is shooting up, particularly affecting the highways department, such as bricks, stone, metal, gravel and sand.”
He added: “We can make tweaks, but this will result in cuts to frontline services. Carers and vulnerable children will lose out.”
Rising costs for the county council have come following the coronavirus pandemic and global inflation crisis and energy supply crisis amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
KCC leader Roger Gough (Con) later warned that the pressures continue to grow for the county council.
He said: “This gives us a great deal of work to do in the coming weeks and months to bring this back in line.”
Cllr Oakford added: “Urgent action is required to reduce the overspend to mitigate this pressure.
“The current challenges, unless mitigated, will require close to 50% of our total reserves at the end of this financial year.”