Agenda item

Briefings on Policy, Budget and Other Issues


Councillor Hebb began his briefing by thanking key-workers that had dedicated so much time during the pandemic to keeping people safe, and continued to do so as the country emerged from lockdown. He stated that central government had allocated £9 million in funding for Thurrock for COVID-19 relief, as well as £20 million to help small businesses, whilst continuing to pay 60% of the nation’s salaries during furlough. He continued and described the economic impact the pandemic would have on the Council, and detailed how 10% of income had been lost from fees and charges; council tax arrears had increased by 5%; and residents claiming council tax relief had increased by 20%. He highlighted that these changes would create a funding gap for the 2021/22 financial year, which would be compounded by business rates payments also being delayed. He stated that Thurrock Council had managed to close a funding gap in 2016, and he felt confident that the 2021/22 funding gap could also be closed.

Councillor Hebb continued and stated that Thurrock continued to run economic assessments, which had been helped as the rainy day general fund had been increased 40% since 2016/17, and a £6million Financial Resilience Reserve had been created. He commented that a social services reserve of £1.5million had been created since the pandemic, which was designated for extraordinary use, and could not be used to deal with everyday social services pressures. He stated that due to the ongoing pandemic the Council would need to draw on reserves, and make some service reforms, but mentioned that reserves would not be depleted. He highlighted that any money taken from reserves would be put back in over the next five years.

Councillor Hebb then moved on to discussing the Council’s investment approach, and stated that investments had continued to make returns during the pandemic, and had helped to increase the Financial Resilience Fund and financial reserves. He stated that the short-term borrowing and investment approach had received cross-party support during Full Council meetings since 2017, and had helped to deal with financial pressures brought on by COVID-19. He highlighted that Thurrock’s investments were focussed in renewable energy, which had not seen a downturn during the lockdown, compared to other Councils who had invested in areas such as high street retail, and were now experiencing investment losses. He stated that the investment strategy was not permanent, but helped Thurrock ensure self-sufficiency, and gave the Council the ability to reform statutory and discretionary services, whilst reducing the amount of investments over time, and that the longer that market is there, the longer council has to find and considerately embed efficiencies. He said members should be factual and accurate with statements made and recognise the commercial nature of the subject to avoid unintended consequences. Nor should members neglect the benefits of the approach such as targeted improvements in our communities and reserves position.

Councillor Hebb outlined the Council’s financial position since the rise of COVID-19, but stated that Cabinet wished to retain projects such as Clean It, Cut It, Fill It as much as possible. He stated that Thurrock would have to consider services post-lockdown and continue to make some services leaner. He added that the surplus which had been ring-fenced for tackling anti-social behaviour would continue to be ring-fenced, but the Council had to consider their Medium Term Financial position. Councillor Hebb continued and highlighted the Council’s Spending Review, which would enter its second phase soon, and would be adjusted to a post-COVID19 world, and would be presented in the forthcoming review.

Councillor Hebb moved on to discuss the surplus which had been allocated in January 2020, and stated that some of this money would have to be re-profiled and reallocated based on COVID-19 pressures. He clarified that areas such as additional police funding and work against the LTC would continue to occur, and the Council would work to ensure all projects funded by this surplus would be honoured by January 2022. He added that the current capital programme would also need to be reviewed in light of COVID-19 pressures, to ensure affordability. He added that a report would be coming to Cabinet later in the year which would outline the process for developing high-quality housing across the borough, but there were currently no on-going Thurrock Regeneration Limited (TRL) projects. He also stated that in light of the changes brought about by COVID-19, the Fair Debt Summit would be refreshed, and meetings were taking place with the IRV on how to undertake this project and collect council tax and business rates fairly. He summarised and stated that any residents or businesses that were struggling to pay their council tax or business rates should contact the Council as soon as possible, to be able to tackle the situation together.

Councillor Halden began his briefing by thanking all the officers who had continued to work hard during the pandemic, particularly the re-ablement team who had been able to ensure that hospital to care home transfers still occurred within target time. He stated that the economy could see a future downturn due to COVID-19, but highlighted that the Council’s financial resilience, including the £1.5million Social Care Fund would help relieve pressures and maintain extra care beds, whilst reviewing options for the domiciliary care market. He stated that the Council had also set up the Economic Vulnerability Task Force, in partnership with key stakeholders such as Inspire Thurrock to ensure that residents were protected from exploitation during these difficult times, and were supported in finding work. He added that the care system had had to learn to evolve during the pandemic, and a report would be going to the Health and Wellbeing Board in July which outlined the new primary planning areas. Councillor Halden summarised and stated that some projects were continuing during the lockdown, such as improving technology facilities for vulnerable residents to ensure they could remain in their homes for as long as possible, and improved transition services for young adults leaving care.

Councillor Huelin stated that during the pandemic, Thurrock Council and CVS had reacted quickly to the crisis and had collaborated together effectively. She thanked the TCCA and CVS, and felt proud that over 500 volunteers had received DBS checks to be able to start volunteering, and had delivered up to 300 interactions a day, including follow-up calls. She thanked the community for all their hard work, and felt proud that although the pandemic had been a difficult time, Thurrock had shown positive community spirit. She stated that the VSDF funds had been allocated, but all groups had agreed to defer payment to allow the Council to redeploy funds to those affected by COVID-19. She added that the CEDF funding had also been put on hold.

Councillor Jefferies thanked those who had worked hard to ensure that schools could remain open throughout the pandemic for the children of keyworkers. He stated that prior to COVID-19 a group of local authorities across South East Essex had met to discuss local skills and training programmes, but this had been delayed due to the pandemic. He commented that this group was now meeting again, with Thurrock taking the lead on how to build apprenticeships back up after the pandemic, as up to 27% of apprenticeships could be lost because of COVID-19. He added that the Council were also looking at ways to help those who had lost their jobs because of COVID-19, and Thurrock would work help retrain and upskill those people.