Lancashire County Council budget 2021: cash for roads and protection from rivers - and a row over council tax

Lancashire’s roads will get a £10m funding boost, while £5m will be pumped into flood defences after Lancashire County Council set its budget for the year ahead.

Thursday, 11th February 2021, 9:11 pm
Updated Friday, 12th February 2021, 12:58 pm

The capital investments were approved after being put forward by the ruling Conservative group on the authority, as political parties of all colours at County Hall vied for the public’s attention in the final budget before local elections due to take place in May.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition groups each proposed defeated amendments which would have seen household waste recycling centres revert to seven-day operation and longer opening hours – and offered up funding for their own road, flooding and drainage schemes.

However, a row over council tax levels dominated the debate, which was staged remotely because of the pandemic.

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County Hall was not the stage for the budget-setting this year, because of the pandemic restrictions - but the debate was as lively as ever

The authority’s share of the bill in the region will rise by just under four percent from April – below the maximum amount permitted by the government.

County Hall finance officers had recommended that members support the full 4.99 percent increase allowed without a local referendum – which included a three percent hike ringfenced for adult social care, via a special precept allowed by ministers for that purpose.

However, the ruling Conservative group put forward an amendment to levy only a two percent rise to cover social care costs, along with a 1.99 percent general increase – boosting bills by a total of 3.99 percent.

The move, which won majority support, will add £56 to the charge on a Band D property, compared to almost £70 if the full increase had been introduced.

Council leader Geoff Driver said that he had attempted to limit the impact of the rise and was recommending any increase “with some reluctance, because I am aware of the financial pressures facing the people of Lancashire at this time”.

But he added: “I am absolutely convinced that it is necessary if we are to maintain our financial viability and thereby protect the county council’s services.

“Unlike many local authorities in Lancashire and beyond, our finances are sound and our services our secure.”

The social care precept is able to be spread over the coming financial year and the next, but the Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition groups proposed levying none of it during 2021/22 – meaning their total council tax increases would have been 1.99 percent this year.

Presenting Labour’s budget amendment, County Cllr Tony Martin said that the party rejected the social care precept rise at a time when many are “furloughed or have been unable to ply their trade in the retail or hospitality sector for months now”.

“I put it to you that a worker furloughed on 80 percent of the minimum wage…is in no position to be asked to pay a 4.99 percent council tax increase at this time, “ he added.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat group leader David Whipp said: “It’s just more than people can afford – people that have contacted me that are in dire straits due to the pandemic and the income loss they have suffered.”

The party said that it was deferring the social care precept rise until next year, meaning that the impact on the authority’s longer-term finances would be minimal – an option also open to Labour and, in relation to the one percent of the precept that it did not levy, the Tories.

In an assessment of each of the proposals not to take advantage of the full three percent social care council tax increase, chief executive Angie Ridgwell noted that it would be a “permanent reduction to the council tax base” – should whichever party is in control next year decide not to charge it as of 2022/23 either.

Cabinet member for adult services, Graham Gooch, hailed the authority’s efforts in suportign the care sector during the pandemic – including sourcing £6m of PPE at the height of last spring’s shortage. He said that anybody voting against the 3.99 percent council tax rise would be “voting for cuts” to the county council’s “big ticket” services.

However, County Cllr Martin said that he was not proposing taking a “single penny piece” from the budget, but instead funding it via the transitional reserves.

In addition to the road and flooding cash, the Conservatives allocated £2m for cycling and walking schemes, with an extra £400,000 each year for youth workers, a one-off £500,000 investment in the county’s book fund and £496,000 for a climate change programme of work.

Labour had proposed a £2.5m recurring investment in flood resilience schemes every year, along with £5m for a “faster response” pothole programme, £500,000 for healthier living programmes, and a slew of individual pots of £500,000 in “prime-pump” funding for potential future projects, including a Fleetwood tidal barrage and to prepare Preston railway station for the arrival of HS2.

“The government has repeatedly talked of funding “shovel-ready” schemes to revitalise the economy after the pandemic is over – and it would be an opportunity to do some initial preparation [for] these schemes to make them eligible for funding if the opportunity arose,” County Cllr Martin said.

However Michael Green – Conservative cabinet member for economic development – said that Labour’s proposals were “a mess”.

“They propose feasibility studies which have already been done and pump-priming for projects, some of which this administration has already done and others for which there is no business case.”

The Lib Dems had wanted to see a £15m capital investment in the roads and £1.2m spent on drainage maintenance, while the Green Party made an unsuccessful call an already allocated – but so far unspent – £3m of green energy cash to be put into reducing fuel poverty and installing solar panels on domestic properties.

Green Party county councillor Gina Dowding said that the money had been “waiting to be spent”.

“This isn’t just matter of recommitting [the funding] – it's time now to use it for exemplar and demonstration projects that can be more quickly rolled out and use the latest technology – and to tackle the wicked problems that are associated with climate change remedies,” said County Cllr Dowding, who also criticised the proposed rise in “regressive” council tax.

Labour's Lizzi Collinge condemned "warm words and no real action" on climate change at County Hall, calling for the issue to be put "at the heart of everything we do".

With County Cllr Driver not standing for re-election in May, County Cllr Ali wished him well – before accusing him of having presided over “savage cuts to services across Lancashire”.

“Social care funding needs to come from Boris and it’s about time the [Lancashire Conservative group] grew up and fought for the most vulnerable in our county,”

“The [Lancashire] Conservative record on finances is made up of bribes to the electorate that have cost this council well over £110m,” he said, referring to a Tory decision taken in 2013 to cut council tax at the county council by two percent before local elections.

Meanwhile, Lib Dem county councillor John Potter accused the party of making cuts over its current term of office that had not been “victimless”

“People in Lancashire have suffered because of your regime and you will have to face that consequence,” he said.

But County Cllr Driver said that he had generated savings by improving “efficiency and effectiveness” – and had earlier noted that the authority’s £200m deficit in 2017 had been reduced to £46.8m today and would have been eliminated totally had it not been for the action taken to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

“We have been businesslike in the way we have gone about the county council’s operations,” County Cllr Driver said.

Referring to the call from the Labour and Lib Dem groups to extend the hours at the county’s recycling centres “from early morning until late evening”, he added:

“At both ends of the timescale spectrum, the actual use of the centres simply does not merit keeping them open – so by being businesslike, we save money that we can spend on the most vulnerable people in Lancashire.

“The proposals that [Labour] are recommending to find from balances is exactly why you got in a mess the last time you were in the administration – and to keep spending money on ongoing expenditure and funding it from balances is a recipe for [the] disaster that you met before.”

He added that he had been waiting for deputy Labour group leader John Fillis to repeat a call he had made at last month’s cabinet meeting advising him “not to be irresponsible and not increase the council tax”

“I listened, but you didn’t actually say it,” County Cllr Driver ended.

WHAT WILL I PAY?

This is what the 3.99 percent council tax rise will mean for bills in each property band in 2021/22 (compared to 2020/21). The figures relate to the county council's share of council tax bills in Lancashire and exclude the smaller amounts taken by district and parish councils, the police and fire service. Council tax in the standalone local authority areas of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen is set separately.

BAND A - up £37.24 to £970.79

BAND B - up £43.45 to £1,132.59

BAND C - up £49.66 to £1,294.39

BAND D - up £55.87 to £1,456.19

BAND E - up £68.29 to £1,779.79

BAND F - up £80.71 to £2,103.39

BAND G - up £93.11 to £2,426.98

BAND H - up £111.74 to £2,912.38

PARTY PROPOSALS

Each group put forward their own package of amendments to the budget presented to the county council, which had recommended a 4.99 percent council tax increase and included a forecast of £24.2m in savings across the next two years.

CONSERVATIVE AMENDMENTS

Revenue

Increase council tax by 3.99 percent rather than 4.99 percent - £5.197m

Additional investment in youth workers (recurrent) - £400K

Increase the book fund (2021/22 only) - £500K

Investment in museums web pages (21/22 only) - £50K

Investment in Environment and Climate Change Programme - £496K (from 2022/23, full-year recurrent costs - £973K)

Additional borrowing costs (recurrent) - £1.19m

Capital

Additional funding for highways - £10m

Additional investment in flood defences - £5m

Additional funding for walking and cycling schemes £2m

LABOUR AMENDMENTS

Revenue

Increase Council Tax by 1.99 percent rather than 4.99% - £15.583m

Reinstatement of household waste recycling centre provision (full-time hours) - £734K

Reinstatement of welfare rights service - £380K

Investment in healthier living programmes - £500K

Reduce the winter gritting trigger temperature level - £110K

Reinstatement of highways – gully emptying - £283K

Strengthen flooding resilience - £2.5m

Feasibility study - Midge Hall railway station - £50K

Feasibility study - Coppull railway station - £50K

Capital

Faster response potholes programme - £5m

Residents' parking schemes kick-start funding - £500K

The Greening of Lancashire County Council - £2m

Colne-Skipton railway - pump priming - £500K

Poulton to Fleetwood Rail link - pump priming - £500K

Fleetwood Power Barrage - pump priming - £500K

A56 villages bypass - pump priming - £500K

Skelmersdale rail link and station - pump priming - £500K

Lancaster station HS2 prep - pump priming - £500K

Preston station HS2 prep - pump priming - £500K

Burscough curves reinstatement - pump priming - £500K

Rawtenstall to Manchester rail link - pump priming - £500K

Eden of the North – transport planning – pump priming - £500K

Morecambe–Blackpool rail link – pump priming - £500K

Nursery Schools – Emergency funding - £1m

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT AMMENDMENTS

Revenue

Increase council tax by 1.99% rather than 4.99% - £15.583m

Reinstate seven-day opening at household waste recycling centres - £230K

Provide funding for street light energy costs to allow more flexible policy on times of dimming in locations where there are community safety concerns - £500K

Fund additional maintenance for highway drainage, with delegation to districts where there is local capacity to carry out work (including drainage schemes in capital programme) - £318K

Contribution to Ribble Rivers Trust Woodland Connect programme - £50K

Fund replacement tree planting - £50K

Fund programme of establishing wildflower verges - £100K

Capital financing - £814K

Part-funding of the revenue amendments

Reduce budget for mileage and other costs due to new ways of working: -£1m

Reduce agency staff costs: -£1m

Cease provision of member champion grants: -£50K

Increase staff vacancy factor by a further 0.5percent: -£1.721m

Reduce special responsibility allowance of Leader of County Council (with pro-rata adjustments to SRAs geared to that level) by 10 percent and cease SRAs for Member Champions: -£63K

Net additional budget pressure £13.811m

Capital

Road and pavement repairs - £15m

Increase drainage maintenance budget - £1.282m

Invest £3m of unallocated Green Energy Fund for renewable energy projects.

GREEN PARTY AMENDMENTS

To direct the remaining £3m from the Green Energy Fund to projects which:

*** Reduce domestic fuel poverty through retrofit schemes at scale.

***Increase domestic renewable energy. (Large parts of Lancashire’s rural villages are reliant on oil. A range of projects that could be developed to help Lancashire homes move to low carbon heating systems. A project funded by the Rural Community Energy fund grant looking at the feasibility of getting Chipping village off oil and onto low carbon heat infrastructure- an infrastructure project which could be replicated for other villages).

***Installation of solar panels on housing.

***Investment of large scale solar on landfill or other land to create an income or fuel poverty fund and/or invest in community renewable schemes

***Provide community and small-medium scale agro-ecological food growing and agroforestry projects.

To create a £100k decarbonisation budget to support development of projects above;

In the developmental project stages such as to assist in identification and installation projects for renewable energy generation, retrofit of old housing stock and increase in local food growing.

The budget would facilitate more and faster development of local exemplar decarbonisation projects in the renewable energy generation and local food growing in Lancashire though:

*** Assisting in bringing specific projects to implementation.

*** Work to explore overcoming challenges and exploit opportunities.

*** Work with developers and local stakeholders during the pipeline of projects.

***Explore addressing supply chain and skills shortages for retrofit schemes.

***Address other supply chain challenges and opportunities e.g. for gas boiler replacement.

***Enable the County as asset owners to engage with stakeholders, businesses and communities.

***Assist small-medium scale companies, and community collective and not-for-profit led initiatives.

***Promote and roll-out good examples.