Devon County Council taxpayers face a five per cent rise in their bills from April.
The increase (actually 4.99 per cent) will mean the yearly council tax bill for an average Band D property will rise by £77.67 to £1,634.13. This excludes planned increases to other parts of the tax that fund district councils, police and the fire service.
Devon’s ruling Conservative cabinet approved its budget plans at a meeting on Friday [10 February], which will see total spending increase from £629 million to £696 million next year – a rise of 10.5 per cent.
It will now be presented to full council on Thursday [16 February] to be ratified.
The money will mostly go towards spending increases of 18.4 and 8.8 per cent on children’s and adult services respectively, while corporate services will get a 6.5 per cent increase.
Elsewhere, public health, communities and prosperity gets 5.4 per cent extra, and climate change, environment and transport will be given 3.5 per cent more cash.
However, cabinet member for finance Phil Twiss (Conservative, Feniton) warned the council’s income, including central funding from government, is “not enough” for it to set a balanced budget without making savings and efficiencies elsewhere.
As a result, savings, alternative funding and additional income of £47.5 million have been identified in the 177-page budget book, including £26.4 million of savings in adult social care.
“There has been more intense challenge and scrutiny of these savings proposals than ever before,” Cllr Twiss said, which would ensure they are “as robust as can be.”
He added that since the target budget was set last month, the council has allocated an extra £2 million to tackle the increase in potholes caused by this winter’s icy spells and torrential rainfall.
“Despite the massive challenges, this is an excellent budget,” Cllr Twiss claimed.
On the council tax rise, leader John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh & Wembury) said in a statement: “We fully recognise the strain that household budgets are under with soaring inflation and big rises in the cost of living.
“But we must look after the young, the old and the vulnerable and they account for some 79 per cent of this budget.
Opposition leader Julian Brazil (Lib Dems, Kingsbridge) said the main debate would be saved until next week’s meeting, but questioned the county council’s financial security due to a large ongoing overspend on supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
Since 2020, councils across the country have been told by the government to put their SEND overspends into separate ring-fenced accounts while it develops a new funding model – an arrangement recently extended to 2026.
It means Devon’s total running SEND overspend – effectively debt – is projected to be £127 million next month, rising to £153 million by March 2024.
This would be in excess of the council’s projected combined working balance and earmarked reserves, leading Cllr Brazil to ask: “Technically, does that mean we’re insolvent?” He was told that wasn’t the case.
Cllr Brazil also disagreed that it was a “balanced budget,” because the council is predicting to add £26 million to its SEND overspend next year. “That doesn’t make it balanced. It just means it’s just being hidden away.”
An officer said the total was being held “off balance sheet, so effectively a negative reserve which is part of government guidance and advice to do so.”
The budget document explains that Devon has “submitted proposals” to the Department for Education for an intervention to support it in bringing SEND spending “back to within available resources.”
“At the time of writing no decision from the government has been notified to the authority, despite attempts to bring this matter to a conclusion,” it said.
Labour leader Carol Whitton (St David’s and Haven Banks) said she “appreciates that this has not been an easy budget to put together,” adding: “I’m sure we will have a good deal to say about [Cllr Twiss’] assessment that this is a good budget for our population, and we will challenge that on Thursday.”
Meanwhile, Cllr Jacqui Hodgson (Green, Totnes & Dartington) said her party was “happy” to support the proposed increase in council tax “as I believe that we need to ensure continual funding for our public services.”
She also welcomed the increases in adults and children’s services but questioned the “piecemeal funding” for some elements of the council’s services and believes more money should be switched from roads to active travel.
Members will discuss and vote on the budget at a meeting of the full council next Thursday