Councillor Hebb presented the report and in doing so stated Councils across the country were presented with challenges as a direct and indirect result of COVID-19. He continued by saying recessions calibrate perceptions about wants and needs, what is really important or what is just desirable. What was important was how to achieve and secure what the Council needed to do.
He continued to inform Cabinet Members that Thurrock had a ‘nest egg’ of sorts, built up from prudent financial planning and policy. Its useable reserves position had increased by 131% since 2016 levels, as a direct result of the policy of reforming services and the member agreed investment approach.
Councillor Hebb continued by commenting the Council should be thankful, that they have a reserve to fall back on as it is something that most authorities do not have, however it will not solve the problem but would give a temporary lift. He stated that the collection fund losses were accounted for in the years ahead and such a spike in reduced collections and increased benefit claimants would have to be paid.
Members heard how elements of the Capital Strategy had to be paused. Cabinet were in the process of working with Directors Board to review timescales of capital initiatives which had not yet started, re-planning for the life after scenario and unfortunately some plans would have to be cut altogether.
The Portfolio Holder continued in his address saying it was important for Members to remember where the investment market existed the Council would have longer to make reforms which would be at a more considered pace. New investments were not something the Council was looking to do as the market was not what it once was, this was for a number of reasons.
Councillor Hebb mentioned the plans to increase reserves to ‘weather the storm’ had allowed Members and Officers to tidy up the borough, allowed funds for mental health reform, allowed to invest in the children social care market and they had allowed funding for extra police within the borough.
He continued to state spending commitments on the Police and investment in Environment and Social Care had been ring-fenced, as this was used to provide one of support helping them stabilise and operate at a high level.
Cabinet heard that the Council strongly believed in a regeneration lead objective to help stimulate spending and recovery, which was why cabinet had agreed to put £1 million into progressing with the housebuilding objective of the third stage of the Local Plan Refresh.
Councillor Hebb further advised that his portfolio holder peer group of finance portfolio holders across Essex had met a couple of weeks ago to shape the approach being put forward by local government in the Essex area to the Government. The Government had now announced a further £1 billion to support the local government pressures emerging from Covid-19 and Members across Essex waited for further details. In the meantime, action had to be taken and action had begun. As people left roles through retirement or moved on to new opportunities, vacancies which were less critical would not be replaced.
It was explained that an Assets Review had been completed in the spirit of a “few buildings better services”. A rationalisation of the asset estate was something that had been required to be completed, spending taxpayers money propping up and maintaining estates which would be better utilised as identified under the Retain, Re-use and Release scheme was something that was needed.
Councillor Hebb moved on, commenting on Councillor Huelin’s report from Full Council which attracted widespread coverage for her thanks to Council staff during the first 6 months of the pandemic and further commented that her comments were echoed by all Members across the council. Finally he extended thanks on behalf of all Members to all staff of the Authority for their hard work.
Councillor Coxshall thanked for the Portfolio Holder for his report and commented on the importance to refresh the Assets Strategy which enabled updates on Corporate Policies and to be able to deliver better services for residents.
Councillor Hebb agreed with fewer buildings better services could be offered, an example of this was the children’s centres whereby now a service was being used by 90% of residents/parents rather than the 60% before.
The Leader stated the children centres were a good example of showing how a change in services can work better for residents. He continued by thanking the finance team for their excellent work over the last couple of months on the local government reform.
Councillor Hebb closed the discussion by commenting on a question which was asked by those who did not work within local government, if there are reserves then why do we have to have efficiencies. He continued to say that the world was changing at such a pace that services may not be the same again, and we may need further support later down the line, whether it be in the social care market for example.
He commented that although it assisted with the issues that were ahead, it was important to be prudent with the reserve as there could be additional pressures coming that had not been forecasted.
The Leader of the Council agreed mentioning that an analogy would be if you have savings, you can only spend savings once. Likewise monies being put aside to complete a certain project.
RESOLVED that Cabinet:
1. That Cabinet support the approach to meeting the budget pressures in 2021/22 through short term measures; and
2. That officers bring reports to Cabinet, and the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committees, as the proposals for next year (2021/22) are further developed.