The following post summarises key points from budgets set by Somerset West and Taunton Council (SWT), Somerset County Council and other local authorities, including how much Council Tax we will pay to each. The fate of a budget amendment I proposed for energy and climate protection projects is also covered.
Last week, SWT set its annual budget. Growth items included: homelessness B&B (£155,000), continuing additional staff capacity (£2.45 million), Park and Ride (£230,000), environment strategy development, including for climate change (£75,000), Citizens Advice Bureau (one-off additional £33,000), dredging Watchet outer harbour (£43,000), additional street cleaning in larger towns (£40,000), and IT costs (£556,000). Some of these additions, including for staffing and IT, are temporary for one or two years.
Due to on-going reductions in government funding, a budget gap of £525,000 is forecast for SWT from 2021/22, rising to over £1.7 million in 2024/25. The budget report states there will be “an increasing reliance on investment income to fund services in future” (para 16.2) as well as reliance “on significant cost reductions being fully achieved within the next 12-18 months, and investment income growth to be delivered at pace” (para 22.10). Primarily, the cost reductions are to remove the need for additional staff, which results from the failed transformation programme. There is more on this and on the Council’s new Commercial Investment Strategy in my post on 2019 and into 2020.
SWT’s total budget (net expenditure) for 2020/21 is £21 million.
I proposed an amendment to SWT’s budget to fund energy and climate protection projects. This was a modest proposal and allowed the budget to remain balanced and robust.
As said in my short speech to Full Council, the funding would cover the costs of appointing a new specialist officer to organise community projects, such as promotions for solar panels, battery storage, home insulation, low carbon heating, shared electric car clubs, share shops, tree planting and re-wilding. The value of such a post has already been demonstrated by Frome Town Council.
In addition, the funding would assess the installation of more solar panels, batteries, wind turbines and energy saving measures on the council estate.
Unfortunately, the amendment was not carried. There were 17 votes in favour, 3 abstentions and the Liberal Democrats voted as a group of 27 against. There were 12 councillors not present for the vote.
However, there are signs the amendment has already made a difference. I heard that senior officers at SWT were now arranging to re-allocate staff to do more work on climate projects. At the budget meeting, the Executive said they would be adopting the projects and they will happen anyway.
Before proposing the amendment, I had sought for the projects to be adopted and included within the budget proposed to Full Council. This was not done and none were within a pipeline of projects presented at the previous climate change working group, where my proposals were also discussed just two weeks before the budget meeting. It is good if things have quickly changed, albeit a bit disappointing the Executive and the Liberal Democrats would not work with others on this occasion.
The Executive will be held to account on their commitment and a delivery plan will be needed. It will be great if the projects proposed are undertaken, but I will retain some doubts until I see the projects or a firm plan in place.
The Council Tax we pay derives from the budgets set by local authorities. The amounts now agreed for a Band D property in 2020/21 are:
- Somerset County Council – £1,276
- Police and Crime Commissioner – £228
- Somerset West and Taunton Council – £163
- Devon and Somerset Fire Authority – £88
- Town and Parish Councils (average) – £44
- Somerset Rivers Authority (via SWT) – £13
From this, the total Council Tax for a Band D property will average £1,814 in 2020/21. The average amount varies by property band, with Band A to pay £1,180 and a Band H £3,540. For those with low incomes, there is a Council Tax support scheme.
County Budget and Climate Fund
In setting their budget, Somerset County Council (SCC) have created a new climate change fund of £1 million for parish and town councils to bid for green initiatives. This is good, but some questions have to be raised.
There is no strategic thinking behind how the £1m will be spent, apart from local councils knowing what is best for their area. The new money also comes after many years of cuts at SCC, including to close Wiveliscombe library. The most recent cuts made in 2018 included: to stop funding Taunton’s park and ride service and Citizen Advice Bureaus throughout Somerset, to reduce support for adult and children’s social care, and to reduce support for public transport. None of these cuts have been reversed and others have had to pick up the costs, which now allows the county to give money away in a one-off fund before next year’s county elections. It is hard not to cynical by such a move, as welcome as new funding is to address the climate emergency.
SCC’s net revenue budget in 2020/21 is £338 million – this is 16 times greater than the budget for SWT.