Lancashire County Council budget 2023: councillors clash over council tax ‘freeze’ claim, free school meals and pothole repairs

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Politicians traded accusations of cynicism and financial mismanagement as Lancashire County Council set its budget for the year ahead, amid a row over whether it could be claimed that the authority’s council tax had been frozen.

During a five-hour debate, Conservative-controlled County Hall agreed a finance package that broke through the £1bn mark for the first time. It included last-minute extras for additional pothole repairs and a new growth fund for the county, after the latest council tax and business rate collection figures provided an unexpected £3m boost to the coffers.

Council tax itself will increase by 3.99 percent from April - an extra £60 per year on a Band D property - after the county council approved plans to increase its share of residents’ bills by less than the five percent permitted for authorities with social care responsibilities.

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The meeting heard that the move meant Lancashire was amongst the just one in five county authorities that were not planning to hike the tax by the maximum amount allowed before calling a local referendum - and equated to sparing locals the extra £6m that would have been collectively demanded of them had the allowable increase been levied in full.

There are only two Lib Dems on the county council, but one of them - John Potter - says the group has been proved right after warning at last year's budget meeting that new schools were overdue in North West PrestonThere are only two Lib Dems on the county council, but one of them - John Potter - says the group has been proved right after warning at last year's budget meeting that new schools were overdue in North West Preston
There are only two Lib Dems on the county council, but one of them - John Potter - says the group has been proved right after warning at last year's budget meeting that new schools were overdue in North West Preston

However, the Tory leadership came under fire from the Labour opposition group - which did not oppose the actual rise - for recent public statements saying that the council was planning to “freeze the level council tax is increased”.

Labour’s John Fillis described that as “cynical semantics” and “typical Tory spin to confuse and deliberately mislead local people”.

But deputy county council leader Alan Vincent, who is also the cabinet member responsible for resources, rejected the criticism - and offered the opposition “an English lesson”.

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“If I set the council tax at 3.99 percent last year and I do the same this year, I have frozen this year’s council tax at the same rate as last year,” he said.

Green Party county councillor Gina Dowding sat out the "pantomime" part of the budget this yearGreen Party county councillor Gina Dowding sat out the "pantomime" part of the budget this year
Green Party county councillor Gina Dowding sat out the "pantomime" part of the budget this year

County Cllr Vincent also accused Labour themselves of cynicism for proposing an amendment to the budget that would have seen an extra £25m spent over the next 12 months - all funded from the authority’s reserves and with only some of the proposed measures planned to last longer than year.

“Had the Conservative administration accepted all the Labour amendments from 2018 to last year… the transitional reserves would have run out this year and Lancashire County Council would have been bust,” he insisted.

However, Labour group leader Azhar Ali called the Tories’ own financial competence into question, claiming that that figures calculated by the authority’s officers showed that the cumulative effect of what he described as an attempt “to bribe the people of Lancashire” with a pre-election council tax cut of two percent in 2013 had left the authority £187m worse off today than it otherwise would have been.

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The Labour opposition group also said that its budget proposals this year - which included extending free school meals to all primary school children whose families are Universal Credit, a cap on school bus fares and a reduction in the depth that potholes needed to reach before they were filled in - were designed to help residents cope with what the party called “this Conservative cost of living crisis”.

Lancashire County Council has set a budget of just over £1bn for the first timeLancashire County Council has set a budget of just over £1bn for the first time
Lancashire County Council has set a budget of just over £1bn for the first time

Shadow finance cabinet member Mark Clifford said that Tory government ministers “wouldn't have a clue what it’s like to be living on the breadline when they enact their brutal cuts to public services”.

“We in the Labour Party truly understand the effects on real lives…and the horrible hurt and pain it's causing to our residents each and every day. Nobody should be choosing whether to heat or eat - and our budget amendment will help many of our residents who are left behind by this Tory administration.

“Help them in this financial crisis to get on the bus and not just throw them under it, like you usually do,” County Cllr Clifford said to members of the ruling group.

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A share of £86m in savings that had already been agreed by cabinet members back in November formed the basis of an annual budget that was once again obliged to have one eye on the longer-term financial future of the authority, which as recently as the autumn was forecasting that it would have a deficit of £160m in four years’ time.

County Cllrs Alan Vincent (left) and Azhar Ali didn't see eye-to-eye over the budget setting processCounty Cllrs Alan Vincent (left) and Azhar Ali didn't see eye-to-eye over the budget setting process
County Cllrs Alan Vincent (left) and Azhar Ali didn't see eye-to-eye over the budget setting process

That figure is now down to predicted £23.2m, prompting county council leader Phillippa Williamson to trumpet what she described as her administration’s capacity to “identify efficiencies and reduce costs without compromising services”.

There was little debate on the more substantial, yet less tangible, elements of that savings package - including the intention to save £28m by better “cost sharing” with the NHS. Attention instead was on some of the more controversial proposals - including a £253,000 reduction in the winter gritting budget, following a review of optimum routes, and an end to free telecare services for the elderly and vulnerable, which is set to save £3.7m.

Conservative former cabinet member Charlie Edwards added that colleagues should “focus on the positives” in the budget and the backdrop to it - including the fact that Lancashire could decare itself “the capital of the Levelling Up agenda”, having received £200m in the second round of Levelling Up Fund allocations last month.

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The cash - for a range of projects spearheaded by the county, district and standalone councils in the area - amounted to around 10 percent of the total pot distributed nationally, County Cllr Vincent noted. But Labour said that the money did not make up for the more than £1bn lost to Lancashire's local authorities in funding since 2010.

Delivering the Liberal Democrat’s alternative budget, County Cllr John Potter also stressed that it was impossible for the local Tory party to disassociate itself from the financial turbulence caused by the Liz Truss government’s mini-budget late last year.

“Those consequences of crashing the economy, nearly destroying our pensions [and causing] massive hikes in inflation and interest rates have real-term impacts, not just on this organisation, but on the everyday lives of everyone in Lancashire," he said.

As he set out spending proposals which included reversing winter gritting savings and investing in youth workers, he also revealed that he would this year be paying £2,000 more in interest payments on his own mortgage.

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“For many of your residents, that would put them to the wall,” he warned fellow councillors. “The only benefit from Trussonomincs is that it destroyed the myth, once and for all, that you can trust Tories with your money - because you can’t.”

Meanwhile, Green Party group leader Gina Dowding told the meeting that she had decided this year not to partake in the “pantomime “of presenting a traditional budget amendment only for it to be dismissed. She also said that the type of investment in the “new economy” that is supported by the Greens has a triple benefit of improving housing, reducing prices and saving energy.

“Overall, I think that’s the vision that is missing in this budget - really grappling with those issues, not as an add-on [or] afterthought…but actually transforming the way we think about the task in hand, which is the climate crisis, the economic crisis and the social crisis. And we can meet all of those if we invest properly in a transformation of the economy.

Papers presented to cabinet earlier this month indicated that the county council was forecasting a £2.5m overspend on this year’s budget by the end of the current financial year in early April - equating to just 0.27 percent of its spending - but County Cllr Vincent told the budget meeting that he hoped to eradicate even that amount. County Hall expects to have £188m in reserves by the end of March, sufficient money in the bank to support its budget through until 2026/27.

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Cost pressures remain within adult social care - which accounts for 45 percent of the authority’s annual spending, some £445m in 2023/24 - in spite of the fact that these have been mitigated by one-off sources of funding during 2022/23, resulting in the department remaining well within its budget. However, “significant savings” will be required in future years, cabinet members were told.

That crunch point has already come in children’s social care, which is forecast to overspend its budget by £12.5m this year, largely as a result of costly residential and agency fostering placements.

Of the overall budget for 2023/24, County Cllr Vincent said that eye-watering deficit forecasts of just five months ago had required some “very hard but reasonable and realistic decisions”.

“Our main tool is not writing to the government and saying, ‘Send us some more money.’ Self help is the best help - and we have done that and we have done it quickly,” he concluded.

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Conservative amendment and recent spending decisions

***Highway deterioration fund (to fill potholes that do not yet meet the 40mm level required for attention) - £1m (2023/24 only)

***Lancashire Investment Growth fund (2023/24 only) - £1.8m (2023/24 only)

***Investment in business support programmes via match funding for district councils as part of the government’s UK Shared Prosperity Fund - £2.2m (in year)

***Improving cyber security - £765K

***Sustainable transport and active travel - £200k

What they said:

County council leader Phillippa Williamson said that the administration had taken a “prudent” approach to its financial planning which had nevertheless allowed it to “deliver better services which are responsive to residents' needs”.

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“We are improving our roads and making them safer, we're increasing our support for active travel and public transport, we’re launching our Love Clean Streets app and using technology to revolutionise road repairs [and] we’re investing in cultural development - our museums, our libraries and culture and sport initiatives.

“We’re [also] protecting the vulnerable, increasing fostering allowances, improving early years support, developing family hubs [and] investing in additional special educational needs and disability units at mainstream schools across Lancashire. We’ve launched our warm and welcome scheme across the country and our adult social care is joining up with the NHS and using technology to drive down costs and improve the quality of care,” she added.

However, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that the Tory group had “no understanding of how tens of thousands of people are struggling across our county, because of a Conservative cost of living crisis”.

His Labour comrade John Fillis added that “local people want open and honest government - sadly, those Tories opposite have neither the bottle nor the ability to provide that”.

Labour amendment (voted down)

Revenue spending

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***£1 daily cap on return journeys for all county council school bus users - £2.1m (2023/24 only)

***Extension of free school meals to primary school children from families that are not currently eligible, but are on Universal Credit or legacy benefits - £2m (2023/24 only)

***Create ‘kinship care’ support fund for relatives looking after children who cannot be cared for by their parents - £1m (2023/24 only)

***Reinstate free telecare monitoring service for those not currently eligible, but are on Universal Credit or legacy benefits - £629K (recurring)

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***Establish an independent poverty commission to assess the picture across Lancashire - £100K (2023/24 only)

***Development of a ‘Good Work Charter’ - £100K (2023/24 only)

Capital spending

***Green agenda investment to work towards Lancashire County Council becoming carbon net zero by 2030 - £10m (2023/24 only)

***Supported housing projects, known as “extra care” schemes - £5m (2023/24 only)

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***Halve the ‘intervention level’ at which potholes become eligible for filling in from 40mm to 20mm - £4.5m (recurring)

Note - all of the above to be funded from the council’s transitional reserve

What they said:

On the proposed cap on school bus fares, Labour county councillor Anna Hindle said that it was perverse that there was a scheme that currently allowed adults to travel across Lancashire on a £2 flat ticket, whereas a season ticket for a child on a school bus could cost £50-£80 per month. She added that one of her constituents’ children had to miss out on a fortnight of school last year when his mum fell behind on the payments.

“He should have been treated equally [tp] other children and not punished for his family’s personal financial situation," County Cllr Hindle said.

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Her Labour colleague and deputy group leader Lorraine Beavers also invited councillors to consider what it must be like to have to budget on the £7,400 per year income below which a household has to fall in order to be eligible for free school meals.

“Can you imagine trying to find an extra £11.50 a week to make sure your child gets something hot at lunchtime?” she asked.

County Cllr Kim Snape said that the policy of reducing the depth a pothole needed to reach before intervention would be welcomed by the many people who were shocked by the current 40mm rule.

Meanwhile, promoting a partial reversal of plans to charge for ‘telecare’ kit to to support people at risk of falling in their homes, Labour’s former deputy leader John Fillis said that the only fact that had been established about the change was that fewer people “who wanted this service would able to use it, because they [can't now] afford it”.

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On that point, cabinet member for adult social care Graham Gooch said that there were free alternatives available which people who could not afford the council's soon-to-be upgraded digital kit would be supported to access. He added that many people who had the old set-up did not use it or want it, adding: “The modern equipment will do all sorts of things to predict when you’re going to fall.”

County Cllr Williamson, meanwhile, said that it was “shocking” that Labour’s free school meals pledge had been made only for one year, adding that it was “shameful” to be “raising people’s expectations” with no long-term funding in place.

Commenting on the pothole plans, cabinet member for highways Rupert Swarbrick said that experts paid to advise the council on the subject of road repairs were content with the current 40mm level.

Liberal Democrat amendment (voted down)

***More flexible approach to street light dimming in areas where there are safety concerns - £500K (recurring)

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***Twelve new parking enforcement officers, one for every district - £357K (recurring)

***Six additional permanent youth workers and a senior youth worker - £297K (recurring)

***Reinstate savings proposed to be made from winter gritting - £253K (recurring)

***Tree planting (equal share for each of Lancashire County Council's 84 divisions) - £210K (recurring)

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Note - all of the above to be funded in 2023/24 from the council’s transitional reserve

What they said:

Liberal Democrat county councillor John Potter said that while he supported the review of winter gritting routes, he did not believe it should be used to generate a financial saying. Noting that council officers had assessed that the changes could lead to greater damage to the roads and even an increase in accidents, he added that it was a “false economy” and an “absolute farce”.

He also said a proposed council policy to ensure that no biodiversity was lost when trees were removed was insufficient in a climate emergency - and stressed that tree-planting schemes should be rolled out not just in Lancashire’s already leafier parts.

Assessing the Lib Dem proposals, County Cllr Vincent accused the group of having “PHDs in hypocrisy” for proposing to use reserves to fund their policy ideas, when in previous years they had criticised Labour for doing the same.

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Lancashire County Council’s share of the bill only (excludes district and parish councils and police and fire authorities, with increase on ‘22/’23 rate in brackets)

Band A - £1,049.81 (+£40.28)

Band B - £1,224.77 (+£46.99)

Band C - £1,399.74 (+£53.70)

Band D - £1,574.71 (+£60.42)

Band E - £1,924.65 (+£73.85)

Band F - £2,274.58 (+£87.27)

Band G - £2,624.52 (+£100.70)

Band H - £3,149.42 (+£120.84)

Source: Lancashire County Council