Colchester City Council has agreed a budget to tackle some of the most challenging times ever experienced in local government. With some local authorities currently facing bankruptcy, Colchester councillors have agreed a budget that will put the council on a stable financial footing for the future.
A raft of measures to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead were approved by Full Council, last night, following recommendation by the Cabinet, Scrutiny Panel review and consultation with residents and other stakeholders – as the council braces for sustained economic turbulence from high inflation, rising energy costs, the war in Ukraine and continuing fallout from Brexit and the pandemic.
Faced with a significant budget deficit, limited government support and £10m of extra costs, the budget includes a mix of savings, income generation and transformation of services focussed on enabling the council to balance its books. However, financial pressures remain. The budget is now balanced for the coming year, but only after using £1.7m of reserves, while a budget gap of £193,000 is predicted for 2024/25, rising to £1.86m by 2027/28.
The key themes of the new budget are:
Income generation – Mid-year and annual reviews of fees and charges; a review of commercial activities for Colchester Museums and Castle Park; charging for the garden waste collection service; raising the council’s portion of the council tax bill by 2.98% (12p per week) for a Band D property; charging 100% council tax on second homes; a new council tax penalty for fraudulent claims saving some £12,000 over the coming year, and implementing a range of commercial opportunities, including increasing annual income from Sport and Leisure by £500,000.
Transforming services – Senior Management Team redesign; a new and more efficient service model for Sport and Leisure and Colchester Museums; a new recycling and waste strategy to reduce running costs; more efficient digital payment, booking and telephone systems; consolidation of some housing services, and working with partners to deliver community initiatives with their support.
Savings – These include a continued recruitment freeze for non-essential posts, a reduction in overtime budgets and spend, and offering staff temporary reduced working hours. But a planned £300,000 saving, which was to have been made through a reduction in the council’s neighbourhood services has been dropped, while a proposed £50,000 saving, which was to have been achieved through ending its agreement with Essex County Council to maintain verges and trees, was also scrapped.
The budget for 2023/24 also provides for investment in the council’s Strategic Plan 2023-26. This sets out the framework for annual delivery plans and recognises the significant transformation of council services that will be required to respond to future challenges, to reduce spend while still providing services for a city fit for the future.
The new plan sets out five strategic themes to: Develop modern services for a modern city • Respond to the climate emergency • Tackle health, well-being and happiness • Deliver homes for those most in need • Grow our city’s economy so everyone benefits • Celebrate our city and our heritage and culture.
Cllr David King, Leader of Colchester City Council, said: “This budget comes at an extremely difficult time for our residents, for the council, and for the country as a whole. This is the toughest budget we have ever had to set, and we have had to make some very difficult decisions to balance the books.
“Nevertheless, we have agreed, with cross-party participation and scrutiny and public consultation that has helped guide our thinking, a budget for stability and modern services for a modern city.
“With great challenges also come great opportunities. We are at the beginning of a new cycle of investment and regeneration, with nearly £40m in Town Deal and Levelling Up funding and other private sector investments, which will help the look and feel of the city and support our economic recovery and jobs. We will continue to play our full part, with a widely supported budget strategy, which will adapt as needed to ensure we balance the books and still support the public through these difficult times.”
Cllr Mark Cory, Leader of the Council, added: “This budget has been especially challenging, because of factors outside of our control. At every step we have included all councillors and all political parties in briefings and the shaping of the budget. We will balance the books and focus on supporting our residents – accepting that there will be some reduction in certain services.
“But we will also do better, providing investment on top of well-run services, with increasing focus on the environment, neighbourhoods, business investment, our city centre, and on those struggling through the worst cost of living crisis in generations.”