Northants County Council’s ruling Cabinet Committee today agreed their draft budget for the next financial year. They intend to spend £30m more than in this year’s budget, but before anyone gets excited that’s not a real terms increase. They need to allow roughly an extra £18m for inflation, and extra £11m for demographic and demand pressures (more people needing more care), and a figure described as ‘base lining’ of £23m which is effectively the extra money they need to spend to do the things they had already intended to do in this year’s budget, a large part of which for various reasons simply hadn’t worked. So all that extra is needed to simply offer the same current services, albeit to more people (in particular due to our ageing population) without offering anything extra to residents. From that figure they then intend to cut £23m and according to them without reducing services
It can be confusing and as this is likely to be the last ever budget for the County Council before handing over services to the new unitary councils for the county it is more important than ever that the financial plans in their proposed budget actually work because anything that doesn’t add up or any mistakes in their assumptions and forecasting could have legacy effects for the new unitary councils’ financial position
As chair of the council’s Scrutiny Committee I realise that more than ever before, the detail of this budget, which will go to a meeting of the full council in February for approval, needs to be understood and scrutinised very carefully, and I will do my upmost to ensure the scrutiny committee does so which is a point I made while addressing the cabinet members today (see below for the text of my comments).
“Obviously it is far too early for Scrutiny to be able to pass any judgement or comment on next year’s proposed budget, other than that on paper this does seem to be much better than previous years, and we note the comments we have received that the process of putting the budget together has been a much more robust process than previously, but I’m sure you’ll understand we have heard similar comments before and we will not simply be taking your word for that – we intend to drill down into the details to assure ourselves this is in fact the case.
Next year’s budget appears to have two main strands. Firstly, the savings proposals which we need to assure ourselves are genuinely realistic and can be delivered without an adverse effect on our residents,
…and also some of the wider financial assumptions. There are huge figures that allow for things like inflation, demographic pressures and the forecasting of future demand, along with the ‘baselining’ figures which in effect try to correct the position the council has found itself in during the current financial year.
If any of these assumptions are found not to be robust enough there could be serious financial implications for 2020/21, so again we will be seeking a greater understanding of how these projections have been made, and to that end we will be holding a series of working group challenge sessions before reporting any conclusions. These sessions will be open to all non-executive councillors and I would like to take this opportunity to invite councillors from all political parties to take an active part in this work. To kick this off Scrutiny will be holding a special session this Thursday morning at 10am in Room 15 for any non-executive councillor to come along with their suggestions as to which particular part of the proposed budget they feel Scrutiny should be looking at.
This will help inform our priorities and hopefully make sure the work we undertake between now and February reflects far more than just the view of committee members and I look forward to seeing as many as possible there.”