Posted: 18.02.21 at 15:49 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
Somerset County Council has approved its annual budget with minimal opposition – including a nearly five per cent rise in council tax.
The full council met virtually yesterday morning (February 17) to approve both its revenue and capital spending for the next 12 months.
The new budget promises additional funding for the day-to-day running of both children’s services and adult social care, as well as funding to combat the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
But the council has also committed funding to a number of big projects which will invest in the county’s future – including a number of major infrastructure improvements.
Here’s your guide to the county council’s budget and how it will be spending your money over the next 12 months:
Technically, Somerset County Council – like all local authorities – has two budgets which it passes each year: its revenue budget, and its capital budget.
The revenue budget – which amounts to just over £356 million in 2021/22 – covers the day-to-day working of the councils, including children’s services, adult social care, waste management and transport.
This budget is funded by your council tax, as well as business rates, commercial investments and grant funding from central government.
The capital budget – which adds up to just over £152 million – covers new investments or building projects, including new roads, schools or other infrastructure.
This is funded through external borrowing and the sale of existing council resources, such as land or buildings which it no longer needs.
The county council’s finances are starting to improve after a difficult few years, culminating in an emergency budget in September 2018 where £15 million of cuts to services were agreed.
Council leader David Fothergill said this was “a budget dominated by investment”, with front-line services receiving a welcome boost.
An additional £10.2 million will be provided for adult social care in the next 12 months, to “help the most vulnerable people” in the county access the care they need.
Children’s services will also benefit to the tune of an additional £9 million, with Mr Fothergill hoping that the “huge improvements in our safeguarding services” would be showcased in the next Ofsted inspection.
The council will also allocate an additional £6.5 million on projects to tackle climate change, following the climate emergency declaration the council made in February 2019.
A new £10.8 million emergency fund has been created to combat the ongoing impact of the coronavirus, with £400,000 being provided as a one-off grant to Somerset’s Citizens Advice service.
The council has also committed to continue the extended free school meals provision for vulnerable families over the Easter holidays.
The rise in council tax for Band D households (the average) will be 4.99 per cent, or £64.33 – with the total Band D bill being £1,353.53 for 2021/22.
This comprises a 1.99 per cent rise for all council services, with an additional three per cent ringfenced for adult social care.
Mr Fothergill said: “During this time of crisis nationally, a time of financial stress for many councils, it is just so positive to be able to put forward a progressive budget that invests in our adults and children’s services, invests in climate change and infrastructure, invests in our residents, businesses, and communities, and above all, invests in providing more support for more families.”
Of the capital budget that was approved, around £74 million is for new projects.
The new projects being approved for the next 12 months include:
* Resurfacing and surfaces dressing of Somerset roads (£21.406 million)
* Essential maintenance and improvement works on primary and secondary schools (£4.572 million)
* Purchasing new residential properties for short-term children’s care placements (£3 million)
* Small improvement schemes to improve road safety and traffic flow in problem areas on the Somerset road network (£2.25 million)
* Delivering new premises for small and medium-sized businesses in Bruton, Chard and Wellington (£1.6 million)
* Energy efficiency improvements to Bridgwater and Minehead libraries (£360,000)
The remainder of the capital programme comprises schemes which were carried over from previous years.
* An upgrade of ageing traffic signals across the county, including a number of priority sites in Taunton (£8 million by 2023)
* Upgrading bridges, gates and stiles across the Somerset rights of way network (£1.185 million by 2023)
* Replacing outdated street lights with LED lighting (£1.1 million by 2023)
* Developing improvements to Junction 22 of the M5 and the proposed A39 bypass at Ashcott and Walton (£400,000 by 2023)
Normally, the Liberal Democrat opposition group puts forward an alternative budget, with different proposals for how the council’s funding should be spent.
But this year, the Lib Dems on the council all supported the ruling Conservative group’s proposals, citing the unique circumstances of the pandemic and the resulting recession.
Councillor Liz Leyshon, shadow cabinet member for resources, said: “It is a difficult place for Somerset, not only because of the pandemic but because of the low council tax base.
“We are still at a lower level on a Band D house than most other counties, even with a five per cent increase.
"As we move through local government reform, that is a challenge for whatever unitary lies ahead – singular or plural. We all understand that this will be a challenging year like no other.
"We know that upper-tier authorities will see demand for services rise. The capital projects are very welcome.”
The budget was criticised by Andrew Pope, leader of the Somerset Independents group which will be fielding candidates at the next round of local elections.
He said: “At the police and crime panel, I asked for the £15 increase to be refused.
"It was. Your increase is over four times higher.
“You can’t get away with it. Not during a global pandemic when residents have been sacked, been furloughed, been ill or died, and businesses have folded, had to shelve expansion, or lose staff.
“You are supposed to be the custodians of taxpayers’ money. But you have not spent according to residents’ priorities or delivered the services that residents need, and still you want more millions from the taxpayer.”
Councillor Mandy Chilcott, cabinet member for resources, said: “I find it extraordinary that you are advocating a real-term cut in the support for our most vulnerable people.”
The budget was passed by 45 votes to none, with all Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green councillors voting in favour.
All three Labour councillors abstained, along with one independent (Councillor John Hunt), and a further independent (Councillor Neil Bloomfield) was absent from the vote for technical reasons.