More cuts, a council-tax rise of just under 4% and well over half-a-billion pounds of capital spending are on the cards in Northumberland in the coming years.
The county council has now published its detailed budget for 2019-20 as well as its medium-term financial plan for the next three years, with proposals for cutting £25million out of the required savings of £36million – including £12.8million next year.
Ratepayers will be doing their bit with council tax to increase by 2.99 per cent – the maximum allowed by the Government without a local authority holding a referendum, plus a further one per cent ring-fenced for adult social care.
But this doesn’t mean that there won’t be investment in the county, with a significant £589million of spending lined up.
Council leader Peter Jackson said: “We’ve worked tirelessly over the past year to balance our books and we’re confident we’ll be delivering a deliverable but ambitious budget.
“We’ve always had bold plans and this budget will help support a thriving local economy and deliver value for money for all the communities we serve.”
He added: “We’re making good progress against the very difficult financial position we inherited while still delivering the most ambitious capital programme the county has ever seen. We feel these budget proposals strike a fine balance of spend and save.
“We’re committed to our promises of investing in Northumberland’s future and delivering the very best services for everyone who calls the county their home.”
The budget will be considered by councillors at a number of meetings in the coming weeks, but will be seeking final approval from the full council at its meeting on Wednesday, February 20.
It has been well-publicised in recent months that Northumberland County Council still needs to find £36million of savings over the coming three years.
Members are being asked to agree £25.3million of these as part of the plan for 2019-22, with around half coming in the first year, followed by £6.5million in 2020-21 and £5.8 million in 2021-22.
The efficiencies, to use local-authority jargon, come from across the council’s departments, but the lion’s share – £11.8million over the three years – is set to come from adult services, despite the rising pressures in Northumberland, as is the case elsewhere in the country, on adult social care.
Coun Oliver explained that this is partly proportionate, as adult services also has the biggest budget of all council areas, but he also said that there are a number of key themes as to how the money will be saved.
One is the principle of invest to save, for example, increasing capacity within the county to save money on more expensive external placements.
“Another is make sure people get the right support that they need,” he said. “It’s about the package being appropriate and regularly reviewed. It’s not an attempt to stop giving care where they need it.”
A third area of focus is working closely with Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust ‘to make sure we are both getting the best bang for our buck’ and avoiding duplication on the heavily-linked areas of health and social care.
Coun Oliver added: “It’s about organising things properly – both physically and in terms of staffing structures. Where rationalisation has to happen, it should have minimum impact on front-line services, focusing instead on back-office and management.”
Another noticeable area of efficiencies is through the council generating more income, from the likes of waste fees, parking and burial/cremation charges and passing on the cost of road closures, etc, to event organisers.
Council tax will be going up by 2.99 per cent from April, if the budget is approved, while the medium-term plan assumes 1.99 per cent hikes in the remaining two years.
The report to councillors points out that a 2.99 per cent rise is in line with the Government’s assumptions regarding the council’s core spending power.
The medium-term plan approved last February had originally assumed a 1.99 per cent rise this year, but this has now changed because ‘we need to’, according to Coun Oliver.
“There’s pressure on services and we need to find every source of possible income and every possible saving,” he said. “What we will deliver is continually improved services across the county.
“I know people don’t want to pay more, but it will be good value for money.”
The council’s deputy leader, Wayne Daley, added: “People will see it’s investment with a purpose.”
Councillors would also be approving an additional one per cent increase in 2019-20 specifically for adult social-care services, which would raise an additional £1.9million. The three-year plan assumes an rise of two per cent for future years, bringing in an additional £7.7million for adult social care.
Schemes to boost the county’s economy, improve education prospects for all and create new infrastructure for the future are among the key goals, according to the council’s administration.
They are proposing to spend £589million over the next three years in what they are describing as the largest and most ambitious capital programme Northumberland has had.
Flagship projects include new leisure centres in Berwick and Morpeth, a new enterprise zone in East Sleekburn, extra car parks, progress on what is now called the Newcastle to Northumberland rail line and new schools in Hexham and Seaton Delaval.
Coun Jackson said: “As a snapshot, over the next three years, we’re looking to spend £142million on our schools, £60million on regeneration projects, £44million on improving our leisure offer and £43million on housing.
“We’re also supporting an ambitious five-year housing investment programme which will see £22.5million of new investment in council housing which we know is desperately needed.
“We’re already making huge strides in terms of improving education standards, attracting new investment and delivering on an ambitious North of Tyne devolution deal and this progress will continue.”
Coun Oliver accepts that the budget process for a local authority is a ‘tricky balance between investment and not borrowing too much money and burdening the next generation of council taxpayers’.
What isn’t in the Tories’ plan is the £450million of loans to third parties, mainly Arch, which was in Labour’s 2017 budget, and there won’t be speculative developments in a bid to bring in money for the council, he said.
What there will be, he claimed, is investments that will make long-term improvements to the county’s prosperity, for example, through supporting education.
“If we get it right, we will be able to offset the costs in other areas; we have to take a long-term view and try to reduce demand for other services,” he added. “Regardless if we are the administration after the next election, we hope that the direction of travel is set.”
Coun Daley, who is also the cabinet member for children’s services, is passionate about the ‘most ambitious investment in education this authority has ever had’, with Northumberland one of very few councils spending money on schools like this and the only authority in the North East with an active school-building programme.
As well as ongoing investments in Ponteland, Morpeth and Haydon Bridge, there will be new schools in Hexham and Seaton Delaval. There is also money being spent on a special educational needs programme, with hotspots like Blyth already benefiting from investment.
Coun Daley said the geographical spread of this undermines ‘any idea that this administration is only spending money on its heartlands’.
Further north, Amble had been earmarked for significant investment in a new school by the previous Labour administration, although there have since been arguments as to how concrete these proposals were.
Asked about any plans for James Calvert Spence College, Coun Daley said: “£670,000 has been put into it. We have been having dialogue about what it needs. We are not ruling it out and we are continuing to discuss it with them.
“The reassurance to the community is we have invested over £600,000 for maintenance and that will continue and we will continue discussions. Plus, we will be working with the leadership to ensure it becomes a really good school.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service