Councillor Hebb introduced the
report and stated that the report had originally been brought
before Cabinet in January, before being submitted to the Corporate
Overview and Scrutiny Committee for their review. He explained that
the Council had a statutory duty to balance the Medium Term
Financial Strategy, and this had been balanced since 2016 when the
Conservatives had formed a minority administration. He explained
that before this point, the Council had been in deficit, but the
three main political parties had worked together during this period
to balance the budget. He stated that since 2016 reserves had been
trebled, and many years had seen budget surpluses which had helped
to fund areas such as adult social care and mental health.
Councillor Hebb explained that due to the events of 2020 and the winding down of the investment strategy over the next 2-8 years, the Council would now have to work hard to balance the budget. He explained that all 49 members had previously agreed with the investment strategy, which had brought many benefits and investment to Thurrock. He then moved on and explained the commentary that had been received at the scrutiny meeting. He explained that the first comment the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee had made related to the need to seek funding from central government, to ensure Thurrock had continued support. Councillor Hebb explained that central government had already provided Thurrock with £14million of support, £30million of which had been distributed to businesses as grants. He added that central government had also spent billions of pounds on the furlough scheme to ensure people could keep their jobs throughout the pandemic. Councillor Hebb stated that central government funds still came from the taxpayer, but the Council had been submitting their accounts to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) monthly throughout the pandemic. He explained that as reserve levels had now trebled, part of the ‘rainy day’ fund would be expected to be used to balance the budget and fund services. He explained that Thurrock did continue to have conversations with central government surrounding funding and support, as well as through mechanisms such as the LGA, cross-borough Finance Portfolio Working Groups, and the IRRV.
Councillor Hebb then moved onto the second point raised by the Corporate O&S Committee, which concerned the rise in council tax. He explained that Thurrock had frozen council tax for some years, whilst other neighbouring councils had risen their levels dramatically, such as the London Mayor who had raised council tax by 31%. He explained that officers had been instructed by all elected members to increase investments to reduce council tax. Councillor Hebb outlined that 70% of the borough would only pay an additional 99p per week in council tax, with the remaining 30% of borough paying an additional £2 per week. He stated that support would be available for those residents who may struggle to pay their council tax. He highlighted that the majority of the council tax raise would help to fund adult social care and relieve pressure and vulnerability within the sector.
Councillor Hebb addressed the issue raised by Corporate O&S surrounding wider opportunities for commercial income. He stated that the finance team constantly worked to assess the fees and charges level, and ensure market driven decisions were made. He commented that Thurrock were also considering other ways of working, such as sharing resources with other councils, and working with the voluntary sector and private sector to deliver certain services. Councillor Hebb then addressed the final point raised by Corporate O&S Committee regarding the acceleration of service reform. He stated that the Council had worked hard on the service review since 2016 to ensure that services did not have to make hard and fast cuts quickly, but due to the investment strategy ending, the service review would need to be accelerated.
Councillor Hebb moved on and outlined the capital programme for 2021/22. He stated that £19million of projects and programmes had been evaluated and postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic. He explained that the Council would still be supporting infrastructure goals such as housebuilding and communities, for example by investing £1million into the Local Plan, and supporting the Thames Freeport bid. He explained that this work could help support businesses and residents, and therefore increase council tax and business rate collection. He stated that other projects would also continue to be funded, such as the A13 widening scheme, East Facing A13 access, the Purfleet regeneration scheme and the Stanford-le-Hope Interchange project, as well as HRA and highways infrastructure.
Councillor Hebb summarised and stated that difficult changes lay ahead for the Council, but he felt that Thurrock could navigate through the crisis and find positive outcomes.
Councillor Redsell then read her statement. She thanked Cabinet for allowing her to comment on fees and charges, as well as the sporting strategy. She apologised for the delay, but wished to put her views as CGS Chair, as well as the Committee’s thoughts before Cabinet, on behalf of all clubs and sporting venues that had to pay fees and charges. She thanked the government for the help they had given to sports clubs through grants, and hoped that the Portfolio Holder would ensure help continued to be given to sports clubs that needed it. She encouraged the Portfolio Holder to meet and engage with sports clubs, to ensure that young people and coaches across Thurrock continued to thrive. She felt that sports clubs coaches needed support, which would help Thurrock achieve its aims regarding increasing exercise opportunities for young people. She also felt that sports would be needed more than ever once the pandemic had ended, and thanked those who worked hard to maintain their clubs. Councillor Redsell summarised and felt that the fees and charges for sports clubs needed to be fair to all, and thanked Cabinet for listening to her statement.
The Leader thanked Councillor Redsell for her statement, and stated that a response would be provided at the fees and charges report item.
Councillor Watkins thanked Councillor Hebb and the finance team for their hard work on the budget. He stated that the environment team had seen benefits from previous budgetary surpluses, as these surpluses had helped fund schemes such as Clean It, Cut It, Fill It and Kerb It. He added that the Keep Britain Tidy scores had also improved since 2016 and were now regularly above average. He felt that these improvements in the department had been due to the investment strategy, which had brought money into the council and had been supported by all members. Councillor Watkins highlighted the Waste Strategy, which he felt had been agreed by a cross-party group and then criticised by opposition members, and he felt that all political parties should now work together to help the borough through the pandemic crisis. He stated that the environment team would continue to work to deliver and manage services. He also thanked Councillor Redsell for her comments, and stated that he would address these during Item 12 on fees and charges.
The Leader also thanked Councillor Hebb and the team for their hard work on the budget. Councillor Halden highlighted that before 2016 when the Conservatives had formed a minority administration, the Council had had little reserves, which he felt would have exacerbated the current COVID budgetary issues. He also added that it was good to see investment continuing in Tilbury, such as the redevelopment of the Manor School, the new Tilbury IMC, and the Tilbury Town Board, which would help to regenerate the area and showed that the budget covered the entirety of the borough. The Leader agreed and stated that lots of money had been invested in the borough during the pandemic, which included 67% increase in adult social care, and this would be partly funded through the additional 99p per week council tax increase for the majority of residents. He added that the rise in council tax would help those most vulnerable during lockdown, and would increase opportunities in the borough. He explained that the investment strategy would also start to wind down, but highlighted that this strategy had been agreed by all members and had been supported by organisations outside the council. He stated that the investment had helped Thurrock fund services, and any borrowing had always been paid back on time plus interest, which had helped the councils who had invested in Thurrock improve their own services too. The Leader added that every local authority had been affected by the pandemic, and local authorities were now more cautious with investments and loans.
RESOLVED: That Cabinet:
1. Considered the comments from the Overview and Scrutiny Committee as set out in section 12 of the report.
2. Supported the proposed council tax increase of 1.99%.
3. Supported a 3% Adult Social Care precept increase.
4. Recommended to Full Council the capital proposals set out in this report and appendices.
5. Endorsed the Early Years Funding Formula for 2021/22, as shown in section 9 and Appendix 5.
6. Noted the proposed updated to the Medium Term Financial Strategy and the remaining deficits in future years.
Reason for decision: as outlined in report.
This decision is subject to call-in.