Kent County Council passes budget plans as it tackles ‘severe’ pressures

Budget meeting Photo Simon Finlay

By Local Democracy Reporter Simon Finlay

Under-pressure Kent County Council (KCC) has passed its budget plans for 2024-25 amid continued concerns for its long-term financial viability.

Members voted it through by 46 to 15 (with one abstention) at County Hall in Maidstone this afternoon.

By securing approval, KCC survives for another year but the pressures will be just as great in 12 months’ time.

The books have been balanced by a range of measures including a review of frontline services and a council tax increase of just under 5%.

But the council has also been forced to dip into its reserves again.

Savings are being sought across the board including a workforce review, shaving costs to services such as the community wardens and phasing out funding for youth services to bring in the new ‘family hubs’ model.

At County Hall today, Conservative KCC leader Roger Gough said the authority is under a “severe and growing” set of pressures which have become “more intense in recent years”.

The growing costs of three “key policy areas” – adult social care, children’s services and home to school transport – as well as inflation have all been among the driving factors, he said.

He added: “So to address that, we have to make major structural and lasting change. In particular, it is breaking that growth, that unsustainable growth, in those three key policy areas.

“If it continues in the way that it has, we will not be able to sustain our future as a council.”

In a statement released after the meeting, Cllr Gough added: “We have lobbied hard, with the support of the County Councils Network and MPs, at meetings with government, in correspondence with the Secretary of State, and in many high profile and frank media interviews, to convey the perilous financial state of local authorities across the UK.

“We are grateful that the government has been willing to listen and do something so unusual as to make extra funding available so late in the settlement process.

“The extra funding we have received is helpful, but it is not a gamechanger for this budget and has only gone a very small way towards easing the pressure, particularly when we look ahead to the next few years.

“The stark reality is that the extra money from government only represents 15% of the budget gap we have had to fill in order to present a balanced budget today.

“There is no cavalry coming over the hill, this is down to us.”

Although the controversial proposal to shut four of the county’s household waste recycling centres is not in the 2024-25 budget, a saving of £988,000 is earmarked for 2025-26.

The subject was not part of the formal debate on the budget but a single line in papers on page 126 states there is an ongoing “review of the number and operation of HWRC sites”.

The issue of the tip closures sparked a revolt from Tory members last year and a planned consultation was shelved.

Margate Labour member Barry Lewis said: “Despite all the public protest, the Tories are hell-bent on shutting the tips. They’re just not listening.

“Next year, when we have the KCC elections in 2025, the public can bring in an administration that will get rid of this plan.”

Deputy KCC leader Peter Oakford pointed out in his closing remarks that the tip closures and possible disposal of library buildings are in the budget papers for planning purposes only and would be discussed at greater length in the future.

Cllr Oakford had earlier told members that the council faced an £86.4m shortfall at the beginning of the budget process.

By law, the authority must be able to balance its budget or face having to effectively declare itself bankrupt as has happened at Birmingham and Nottingham in recent months.

But leader of the Liberal Democrat group Antony Hook said that “behind this blizzard of cuts are people, families” and urged the KCC cabinet to be “more imaginative” in how its members look for savings.

John Betts, acting corporate director of finance, said KCC faces rising costs and warned the continued dipping into reserves is now a “significant risk”.

In papers before members, he said: “It is acknowledged that setting a balanced budget for 2024-25 has been incredibly challenging, due to the ongoing and escalating cost pressures the council faces, alongside insufficient funding in the local government finance settlement.

“Together these mean that the council can only set a balanced budget with further and significant savings and income (including the use of one-off measures in 2024-25 which will need to be replaced in 2025-26 and 2026-27).

“The combination of drawdowns and transfers at the end of 2022-23 have reduced the adequacy of reserves since the assurance given when approving the 2023-24 budget.

“The levels of reserves are now considered to pose a more significant risk to the council’s medium to long term sustainability than levels of capital debt. This is a significant change from previous assurance statements.”

A KCC statement said an earlier draft budget saw a budget gap on £50m but this was plugged by spending controls such as renegotiated energy prices, securing additional dividends from trading, increased charges and striking new contracts with suppliers. This has shaved £30m.

There was also one off measures such as use of reserves and the sale of assets which could realise £20m.

Labour submitted a medium term “alternative budget” based in the main by bringing certain services in house, particularly in the area of social care – but it was overwhelmingly defeated.

Former Conservative leader of KCC, Sir Paul Carter said it would hasten the authority towards a section 114, the declaration by an authority it can no longer provide statutory services.

Sir Paul said: “The best way of summarising Labour’s alternative budget is well intentioned but exceedingly naive…the fastest route to a 114.”

An amendment introduced by Cllr Mike Baldock of the Green Party/Independent group, which recommended following Swale council’s decision to reduce KCC staff’s hours of work and changing working patterns, was also heavily defeated.

Savings from the wage bill could be ploughed into restoring youth services or reversing planned cuts to the community warden services, he said.

He added: “It’s good for the people of Kent.”

Labour’s Jackie Meade did warn that the council could lose experienced staff when it is already having trouble recruiting.

Tory Cllr Rory Love said the proposal was a “cynical” and “despicable” way to treat staff.

All other amendments put forward by the opposition were rejected, including a Lib Dem suggestion to turn County Hall into a part-time wedding venue as an income stream.

17 Comments

  1. “Unfit to run a whelk stall” to use the old parliamentary insult! The sooner we scrap this antediluvian set up and move to a series of Unitary authorities the better. The wheels have fallen off this particular gravy train.

    • Surely a Unitary Authority will still be reliant on the same elected members as those running the current County and District Authorities ?

  2. I thought this country couldnt get any worst after Thatcher. But the country is falling apart, not enough homes, food banks etc, we really are in a mess.

    To get out of it is going to cost billions and than of course the Tories will blame labour for borrowing to put right the Tories cuts, cuts, cuts and more cuts.

  3. so we have to pay for these clowns incompetence then ? it dont seem very fair to me , try to persuade me differently

    • These “clowns” have their hands tied by national government.
      Central government funding has been cut and cut, to the bone, over recent years. At the same time, the government had made it nigh impossible for local authorities to raise council tax by more than 5%. At the same time, responsibility for running a whole raft of services has been devolved from central government to local authorities, without the money to pay for those services.

    • Real world.

      Every council across England be it tory or labour are close to being bankrupt. 14 years of cuts, cuts and more cuts. They comes a point where you cant cut any more and we have gone passed that point. But as long as the rich get richer the poor get poorer all is well in Tory hq.

      This government is a disgrace yet their votes blindly follow them. This area is a tory stronghold.

      Just watch the two lastes series on tv about the post office and now about covid19. This government were happy to put the NHS workers lives at risk. They reward for such bravery, to have to go on strike for a pay rise. Absolutely disgusting treatment by this government.

  4. It is my belief that people of the UK are depressed by the state of the nation, I would also suggest that there is great anger about the level of moral turpitude that affairs of state have fallen to.
    I don’t think there is a great affection for Labour and it’s policies,but they may feel anything is better than this.Sunak himself,and his ministry are not up to the job, as Clem Attlee would have said.
    I am sorry Roger Gough and Paul Carter, you cannot cut your way out of this problem, no matter how hard you try.If cuts were the answer, KCC would be in rude financial health,as the policy of cuts has been continuous over many years,to the point that KCC is like the Cheshire cat,in that as far as East Kent is concerned it is disappearing before our very eyes.
    What point is there having a KCC that does very little and charges so very much?
    Gough and Carter are not bad people and to call them clowns is a bit unfair, but they limited in thought and action by their upbringing, education and social position.
    KCC might survive this year but unless there is radical and widespread reform of local government s114 bankruptcy beckons.

  5. The country is in a mess because of malignant apathy; its population preferring to honour selfishness, rampant consumerism and indolence.

    Fewer people want to work yet are happy to overindulge, drink, smoke, etc, and to hell with the consequences because the state will pick up the bill, right?

    Add to that the perennially inactive among us – not contributing anything to society but small talk lip service with any criticism of them countered by pithy excuses.

    You know who you are.

    • Chocolate OXO – very well put and this benefits culture cannot continue. I am afraid work is unknown and frightening for many!!

  6. Well,that last comment was really helpful.
    The problem of Broken Britain is because there has been a single minded desire to reduce tax.unfortunately,even that project has failed because the tax burden is higher now than it has been for sometime,and it is increasingly falling on those least able to bear it.
    I can see ‘chocolate Oxo’is blaming the poor for being poor,but in a caring society,the sick,the old and infirm,and those struggling to recover from COVID and isolation need our help not criticism.
    This is a wealthy country with a lot of resources yet money collects in pools and becomes stagnant,as it is hoarded.
    Just how much does an individual need to live a good life? Those who have researched happiness as a subject came to a figure of £5m.If you possess £10m does that make you twice as happy? How about £10 Bn?
    I think there are enough trolls in this world, and threatening people with ‘you know who you are’ is hypocrisy when the accuser her/himself hides behind a pseudonym.

    • George Nokes is right. Some people simply have no empathy, no imagination-they have nothing but disdain and lack of understanding for people in worse circumstances than theirs.

  7. This disastrous situation isn’t down to incompetence at KCC – although I wouldn’t give their administration a free pass.
    This is down to a Conservative government who have spent the last 14 years dismantling the state.
    That they refuse to invest in our children, on families, on infrastructure and on health, yet line their pockets and those of their donors is a testament not just to their failure but at their corruption.
    We need a return to sensible government that brings our society together and backs them with real investment.
    That will bring growth back to Thanet, Kent and the UK as a whole.
    We’ll only get that with a Labour government.

    • So, are you putting it on record, that Labour will not line the pockets of their donors ? I for one believe all parties do the same, at the expense of the taxpayer. I also notice your parliamentary leader has made a few ‘u turns ‘ lately, which other leaders have also done, so please dont tell me one party is better than the other, they are all as bad as each other.

      • Paul, bit silly to compare Starmer with the last 4 Tory prime ministers… Poor Keir has to change his tune because everyweek the Tories give us all one more surprise. Rishi’s 5 promises are as solid as his work ethic or charisma.

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