Agenda item

Revenue Budget 2024/25


The Leader


As members are fully aware, the Council has had serious financial challenges over the last few years. We have to be aware of these challenges and we have to face them head on. We've had to make some tough decisions in this budget to secure a viable long-term future for Thurrock. We have made great progress in securing the viability of this Council. When you consider two years ago we were in a place where we did not know if Thurrock would be able to continue as a Council, I want to thank officers for their time, effort, and advice in helping to secure this budget. I know that it was a hard budget to work on, and I want to thank everyone who worked on putting it together.

By supporting this budget today, all 49 members are taking responsibility for the future of this Council. They are saying yes to securing a future of fiscal responsibility and they are proving they have learned the lessons from the BVI and are willing to make the tough decisions that decades of different Thurrock administrations showed that they were unwilling to make. Thurrock has come a long way, and this should be applauded and all Members who have contributed to the positive development of Thurrock should be congratulated. It's only by gritting our teeth and making decisions that are challenging are we able to secure the future of Thurrock, simply saying no, and offering no alternative, as has happened in the past, can't happen again. We all have the responsibility to the residents of Thurrock to help deliver a well-run local authority. This budget has received more scrutiny than any in Thurrock’s history and I would like to thank Councillor Kerin for chairing all the extraordinary O&Ss meetings and all Members who offered fair challenge and questioned the many parts of this budget. This again showed that we were learning the lessons from the BVI which have challenged the Council scrutiny process. I personally thought that the two meetings were truly a good concept and should be done every year, although I might like to consider booking a day of work the next day.

My administration is committed to making the correct decisions for a better future for Thurrock, these have not been easy, but we have secured the future of our libraries and saved our school crossing patrols in order to keep the services that matter to the residents of Thurrock. The council was asked to increase council tax by 10% this was deemed unfair by myself and my administration to Councillor Snell, Councillor Maney and I had a very challenging discussion with ministers. I am pleased to say he recognised that we were not prepared to increase the tax by 10% and if his budget is passed this evening council tax will be increased by 7.99%, this means that Thurrock will no longer have the lowest council tax in Essex, but we will in fact be the third lowest. This was a hard decision that we've had to make to secure the viability of the council. A 7.99% increase protects the services for the most vulnerable whereas increasing council tax by less puts those services at risk and that is not something that I nor my administration is willing to do.

There's been much speculation on the budget both in the media and on social media, and many were led to believe that there would be swingeing cuts to services that are most vulnerable residents rely on. The budget before you this evening will ensure that children's services and adult social care are protected, will not be losing even one child social worker, our grass will still be cut in our parks and open spaces and our streets will be cleaned and our public bins will be emptied. In comparison to our nearest competitor council with nearby unitary authorities, Thurrock will have a council tax that is lower than the average, this really highlights Thurrock past inability to make difficult decisions, since it became a unitary, the second lowest council tax in the country was never where we should have been with the services that we provide. We continue to maintain a low council tax with this budget but is the acknowledgment that the record lows of the past were not sustainable. This budget does not solve all of our problems, there are still tough decisions to make in the future. My overriding priority with this budget is to protect the most vulnerable in Thurrock, and I do believe that we have achieved this. However, whilst this budget is a good step forward for a better future, there are more difficult and tough decisions to make in the future, and this budget does not make right all the wrongs of the past. This budget, I believe, is the right thing for the Council to adopt the administration, has tackled our challenges and is committed to delivering a relatively low council tax, as well as good services, particularly protecting the services that are used by the most vulnerable. This budget recognises the difficulties of the Council's finances but sets out a positive way forward for the next year. I would urge all 49 Members to support this budget today is really not a day to play party politics but a time to do the right thing for Thurrock and its residents. My administration has and will continue to tackle the many challenges that we face, and we are committed to delivering as lower council tax as possible whilst also protecting services. Thank you, Madam Mayor.


Councillor J Kent


I want to start by joining with Councillor Jefferies actually on the process we have been through to get here this evening when we formally set the council’s budget. Those two joint scrutiny sessions were, I think a real step forward, they were, despite the excellent chairing of Cllr Kerin, very long, very arduous and, at times, utterly chaotic but they were a huge step forward and every member in this chamber this evening has had every opportunity to have their say in the formation of the budget before us tonight before it has got to this stage. It has, clearly, been a better, more inclusive, and more transparent process than those we have unfortunately grown used to over recent years. We welcome that and I just genuinely want to acknowledge it. To set a balanced budget this evening the cabinet has nodded through a package of savings that come to more than £19 million and we heard a lot of talk from the leader of the council about securing services for the most vulnerable, protecting the most vulnerable, yet they include cuts that will hit some of the most vulnerable in our community scrapping the Hardship Fund for instance, charging to get disabled youngsters to college, charging for dispersed alarms that help our vulnerable elderly live independently and more besides that. Cuts that will hit the weakest and cuts that frankly shame the Conservatives. We will also see fortnightly bin collections, an £80 charge for garden waste and a huge rise in a raft of fees and charges. These are cuts and charges that will hit every resident of Thurrock. There are, of course, savings included here that we unreservedly welcome; the reductions in spending on agency staff, improvements to the Trade Waste service and entering into a business pool, where business rates pool that brought in millions of pounds to this authority and I am still genuinely baffled as to why we haven’t entered into a new arrangement before now but welcome the fact that we are. But we will also see another punishing, above the cap, to Council Tax increase of 8%. But once again it’s the residents who will be paying the price of the Tory financial disaster and it means that the level of Council Tax has gone up by practically half since the Conservatives first formed an administration back in 2016 and the Band D Council Tax charge will pass £2,000 a year for the first time in Thurrock. Even with all that, what we have before us this evening isn’t, frankly, proposals for a balanced budget. There is still that gap of some £850k to be identified by the 22 March and I would ask the leader when he responds to tell us how he proposes to plug that gap. Will he return to the closure of the Thameside, will it be closing libraries, will be crossing patrols, the fact is we just don’t know, and the Leader needs to come clean on what more he is looking at. Even after all of that, we will still need exceptional government support of £68.6 million in order to set a balanced budget. That, Madam Mayor, is the incredible scale of the financial catastrophe for which the Tories are responsible and the consequences of which the people of Thurrock will have to live with through higher Council Tax and fewer and diminished front-line services for years to come. Tonight, although there is much that we really do strongly oppose in this budget, we accept that we must do the responsible thing and allow the budget to pass. To do anything else would risk turmoil, uncertainty, and deeper government intervention and that is not something we are prepared to do Madam Mayor, so we shall, therefore be abstaining and allowing the Conservatives to have their budget and let’s be in no doubt, that’s what it is, the Conservative’s budget. Madam Mayor, I would like to turn to the future and the fact is, that having divested the council of the Tories disastrous Toucan investment, at what appears to be a loss of £250 million, we will not be able to set a budget without that exceptional government support, in the lifetime of the MTFS that we agreed earlier. That is up to the year 2028/29. This year we are paying the equivalent of 138% of our revenue budget on servicing debt, next year that reduces to closer to 33% and by 2028/29 will still be paying a quarter of our revenue on servicing this toxic Tory debt and that just isn’t sustainable. We have to look at different ways of working, different ways of running the council and delivering council services. That means embracing a new operating model for the council and searching for real innovation. Innovation that will once and for all, tackles the issues of silo working, will embrace the opportunities afforded by artificial intelligence and up to the minute Customer Relationship Management tools, meaning that we put the resident at the centre of what we do helping to cut down on waste and unnecessary duplication and if we are going to be able to ensure a good level of services for all our residents, we just have to accept that we just can’t afford to do that in the traditional way. Generally, we think of resources in terms of money, but it has to be so much more than that. We have to harness the skills, the passion, the experience, and energy of the whole community of businesses, the third sector, community groups and residents so that working together we will be able to, not only ensure a good level of services but will be able to start to tailor services more closely to the needs of our different communities allowing us to ensure consistency across the borough but not uniformity. All of this has to be done at pace and, rather than be seen alongside next year’s budget setting process, the new operating model and the budget must be seen as one and the same thing. And finally, Madam Mayor, we have to continue to rebuild the credibility of the council in the eyes of our residents, in the view of our commissioners and in the judgement of government. If we can do those things, we can start to have a different conversation with government one where we can offer a different proposal around how we deal with the toxic level of debt that we would still have in 2028/29 in a way that gives us a chance of being self-sustainable council and leave intervention more quickly than looks likely at the moment.


Councillor Speight


I have given a great deal thought about what to say this evening that reflects not just my thoughts on this budget, but those of my independent colleagues. We are not a political party, and we are a collective of differing opinions so what I am saying reflects my view although it has been seen beforehand by my colleagues how I vote will be my own choice. Colleagues may go a different way. But what I think is a communality between us is that the recommendations before us are, in the main, the product of a fractured, broken council that has shown little by way of humanity and compassion in the way it has gone about the business of putting a budget together. Firstly, let me say on behalf of myself and colleagues, we have no issue with supporting a 2% increase for adult social care. If we have a concern, it is that the figure is not enough nor does its ring fence stretch far enough. It should surround children's services as well. As for the rest, it's largely a matter of irrelevance. We have to set a budget by law, and it has to balance. Which is exactly what the highly paid number crunchers have put before us. As to its validity, I question it deeply. It is a fiscal plan created with all the finesse of a battlefield butcher, rather than the precision of a surgeon trying to heal and piece together a wounded patient. It shows little humanity, and it has little strategic value. I regard it as a mark in the road rather than panacea aimed at progression. It's a budget of slash and burn, not of creativity. It does a job but not a very good one. Of course it's easy to be critical when you're not the one making the decision so it beholds me to offer some thoughts about what the budget planners could have done. They could have shown vision, talked to prospective stakeholders and investors, to housing associations, for example. They could have laid foundations that would have made an immediate financial implication. They could definitely have questioned more. I look every month with ever-increasing anguish at what we spent online pages. I see not just profligacy but a huge lack of quality control. Buyers of services opt for the cheapest cut, so I go back to my butcher analogy. A good butcher may charge you more at the outset, but what you are served up with will last longer, feed more and end up being much greater value for money. We continue to approach procurement with a belief that the longer a contract is, the better value the council will get. There is no guarantee that equation works.  And, as we have seen from our rising cost experience, I think the spreadsheet of damning invoices proves it did not work. So for me this is a poorly conceived, badly thought-out mere scratching of numbers by pen pushers - albeit very expensive ones. Its only merit is getting us past a 31 March mile pole. A statement made earlier by Councillor Snell about a budget which moved somewhere in the region of £31.5 million between the 14 February and today just shows how much of this is guesswork. But let’s look forward on 1 April work needs to start on a new, strategic, humanitarian budget based on the needs of the people in this borough; not a group of non-invested accountants trying to make an arbitrary set of numbers add up. I cannot support this year's budget personally, but I have the luxury of being able to make a protest vote. Colleagues on other benches do not have that and I respect their position. I am sure this budget will pass without my support but then let's consign it to theoretical history and start again on a better one. 


The following points were raised:


·       Concern on lack of join-up strategic thinking on budgets that all local authorities had found themselves in.

·       More guidance from Government was required to find a solution which was systemic across local government.

·       Money continued to be poured into unnecessary projects, expensive services with the council repeatedly failing residents.

·       Questioned whether next year could see a deduction on the brown bin charge if there were to be a good take up by residents.


The Leader


First of all, I would like to say I agree entirely with what leader of the opposition said about the workings of the Council, and it should becoming more of an enabling council, and you'll be pleased to know that there is work taking place at the moment at pace, trying to bring about those changes, I agree entirely with what Councillor Spillman said and that was, on one hand, you say that these budget proposals were nodded through by cabinet, but then you also praised the fact that we had the two O&Ss and on that subject I think you had the two O&Ss but there were other meetings with people with councillors having the opportunity to question the budget. This budget does protect the most vulnerable in our communities. I've said that repeatedly and I wouldn't be putting my name to something that wasn't protecting the most vulnerable and, as I said in my speech, you mentioned libraries and school crossing patrols. We have protected those, they are still there, libraries will stay open, and our children will be safely cross the road. I am disappointed that neither political party have come forward with an alternative budget. one is going to actually abstain. I don't know what the others are going to do. I'm not quite sure they're going to vote against, abstain, I'd probably make up their mind when it comes to it, but no one has put forward an alternative budget. Time and time again you were offered the opportunity to put forward alternative budgets with other ideas, but you haven't done it and tonight I've not heard one opposition councillor come forward with any decent proposal that we could listen to and use as an alternative. What I have heard is a councillor talking about things that were bought years ago, but it certainly wasn't what anyone within this administration, and it's that kind of thing that we've been trying to put right. Councillor Redsell with regard to brown bins, I think just like any charges and fees that we do, they're always reviewed every year, and I would love to say yes, they will come down in price, but that is something that will review in 12 months' time when they system has been up and running for a period of time. Thank you, Madam Mayor.


Members voted unanimously in favour to note recommendation 1.1.


A recorded vote was undertaken on recommendation 1.2:


For: Councillors Qaisar Abbas, Deborah Arnold, Paul Arnold, Adam Carter, Gary Collins, George Coxshall, Robert Gledhill, James Halden, Andrew Jefferies, Barry Johnson, Tom Kelly, Susan Little, Ben Maney, Jacqui Maney, Augustine Ononaji, Maureen Pearce, Terry Piccolo, Georgette Polley, Joycelyn Redsell, Elizabeth Rigby, Graham Snell, Luke Spillman and James Thandi (23)


Against: Councillors John Allen, Alex Anderson, Gary Byrne, Jack Duffin and Neil Speight (5)


Abstain: Councillors John Cecil, Daniel Chukwu, Tony Fish, Aaron Green, Vikki Hartstean, Mark Hooper, Mark Hurrell, Cathy Kent, John Kent, Martin Kerin, Steve Liddiard, Fraser Massey, Valerie Morris-Cook, Sara Muldowney, Srikanth Panjala, Kairen Raper, Sue Sammons, Sue Shinnick, Lee Watson and Lynn Worrall (20)


Whereupon the Mayor declared recommendation 1.2 carried.


Members voted unanimously in favour to approve recommendation 1.3.


A recorded vote was undertaken on recommendation 1.4:


For: Councillors Qaisar Abbas, Alex Anderson, Deborah Arnold, Paul Arnold, Adam Carter, Gary Collins, George Coxshall, Robert Gledhill, James Halden, Andrew Jefferies, Barry Johnson, Tom Kelly, Susan Little, Ben Maney, Jacqui Maney, Augustine Ononaji, Maureen Pearce, Terry Piccolo, Georgette Polley, Joycelyn Redsell, Elizabeth Rigby, Graham Snell, Luke Spillman and James Thandi (24)


Against: Councillor Speight (1)


Abstain: Councillors John Allen, Gary Byrne, John Cecil, Daniel Chukwu, Jack Duffin, Tony Fish, Aaron Green, Vikki Hartstean, Mark Hooper, Mark Hurrell, Cathy Kent, John Kent, Martin Kerin, Steve Liddiard, Fraser Massey, Valerie Morris-Cook, Sara Muldowney, Srikanth Panjala, Kairen Raper, Sue Sammons, Sue Shinnick, Lee Watson and Lynn Worrall (23)


Whereupon the Mayor declared recommendation 1.4 carried.


At 10.01pm, the Mayor extended standing orders.


Members voted unanimously in favour to approve recommendation 1.5. Councillor Speight voted against this recommendation.


Members voted unanimously in favour to approve recommendation 1.6 and 1.7. Councillor Speight voted against this recommendation.


Members voted unanimously in favour to note recommendations 1.8, 1.9 and 1.10.




1.1      Noted the statutory Section 25 report of the S151 Officer when considering this report and in determining a) the proposed budget for 2024/25 and b) the level of reserves as set out in section 13.


1.2      Approved the 2024/25 Budget to enable the Council Tax requirement for 2024/25 to be set at £91.266m (as per section 5), a 7.99% increase on 2023/24. The result of which was:


1.3      Noted the Council Tax Resolution 2024/25 as set out in Appendix 2 which showed that the Police, Fire & Crime Commissioner had increased Council Tax for Band D property to: £246.42 per annum (a 6% increase on 2023/24) for the Essex Police precept; £82.62 per annum (a 3% increase on 2023/24) for the Essex County Fire precept.


1.4      Members approved to work with officers to identify the full £1.7m in additional savings by 22 March 2024, potential actions were presented in Table 18. The result of which was:


1.5      Approved the 2024/25 Budget based on the estimated financial deficit to be funded by a capitalisation direction of £68.6m.


1.6      Approved the submission of business cases by services to secure approval to utilise budgets earmarked for contract inflation, use of contingencies and budgets earmarked for pressures (Section 10, Table 21) for approval by the Chief Finance Officer and the Finance Commissioner in conjunction with the Portfolio Holder for Finance, Human Resources and Payroll to allow in-year budget adjustments.


1.7      Approved the submission of a spending plan by services before the newly announced additional grant funding for Social Care can be utilised (£1.4m). This would require approval by the Chief Finance Officer and the Finance Commissioner in conjunction with the Portfolio Holder for Children & Housing to allow in-year budget adjustments.


1.8      Noted the savings of £18.2m as identified in the budget, as approved at Cabinet on 10 January 2024 and 21 February 2024;


1.9      Noted the Dedicated Schools Grant settlement for 2024/25 and the Thurrock allocation of £61.6m as set out in Section 11;


1.10    Noted the continued use of measures to control expenditure as set out in section 14.


At 10.09pm, Councillor Collins left the chamber.


Supporting documents: