- New budget maintains flagship Council investments and protects frontline services, despite challenges of the pandemic
- 3% adult social care precept alongside 1.99% council tax rise is proposed
THE Council is proposing a 3% adult social care precept alongside a 1.99% council tax rise this year, in a new budget which invests in Reading’s recovery.
Covid-19 has exacerbated the funding crisis in adult social care which existed long before the pandemic. Caring for vulnerable and elderly residents of the town, and supporting local care homes though the pandemic, will continue to incur significant additional costs in the next year. There will also be longer term impacts, including increased frailty as a result of vulnerable residents having to live alone for much of the year.
Central Government has yet to find a sustainable long-term funding solution for adult social care. Instead, it says it is increasing the ‘spending power’ of local authorities by allowing them to increase the adult social care precept by up to 3%, alongside a 1.99% general council tax increase. For the majority of properties in Reading – 40% of which are in Band C – the proposal equates to a £75.06p increase over the year. The total amount payable will depend on both the Fire and Police authorities’ precepts which have not yet been received.
Reading Borough Council has worked hard to successfully stabilise its finances after a decade of reductions in funding and increased demand for services, but the impact of Covid has been felt by every local authority. The Council is nevertheless proposing a 2021/22 budget and medium term financial plan which both protects frontline services and maintains investment in Reading’s recovery.
The Council’s flagship investments in better services, modern new facilities for residents and a cleaner and heathier Reading, include:
- £9 million on Reading’s biggest ever investment in resurfacing roads and pavements, which began in the Autumn.
- More than £40 million on modern and new leisure facilities, including the replacement of Rivermead Leisure Centre and a new community pool at Palmer Park
- £1.5 million on the introduction of the new doorstep food waste collection service across Reading to drive up recycling rates
- £7 million on energy saving measures in buildings and renewable energy infrastructure to reduce costs, generating income and contributing to the Council’s net zero carbon target in 2030
- £20 million on Green Park Station, opening in 2021, and £3.2 million for the refurbishment of Reading West Station
- Over £30 million for estate regeneration and new affordable council homes, including accommodation for rough sleepers
- A £43m investment in modern and fit for purpose sheltered housing for older people, and supported accommodation and day facilities for vulnerable adults
- £9m on Hamilton School to provide spaces for children with special educational needs alongside £4.5m on the conversion of The Avenue offices to provide additional SEN school places.
The Council’s proposed budget goes to Policy Committee on Monday February 15th (https://democracy.reading.gov.uk/documents/s15950/Budget%20and%20MTFS%20Report.pdf), alongside the results of its recent budget consultation and residents survey. The final budget and associated Council Tax level for 2021-22 will be recommended to Full Council on Tuesday February 23rd.
Council Leader Jason Brock said:
“The crisis in adult social care funding existed long before the Covid pandemic arrived. Despite repeated promises, Central Government has failed to deliver a long-term and sustainable funding solution for adult social care and has instead continued with its ‘sticking plaster’ approach.
“The Government boasts of increasing the ‘spending power’ of local authorities, but this is only by allowing them to increase the adult social care precept by up to 3% and is in the knowledge that many local councils have little option but to take it up at this extremely challenging time, thereby placing the burden on hard-pressed residents.
“Caring for the borough’s elderly and vulnerable residents is fundamental to what the Council does and has never been more important. Alongside NHS and other public sector staff, social care workers in Reading have been heroes of the Covid 19 response locally. We know those pressures will continue into the year ahead and, as unwelcome as the Council Tax rise may be, we need to factor those pressures into the new budget.”
Residents may be eligible for Council Tax support and are encouraged to make an online application, even if they are unsure whether they are entitled. Residents can get more information and apply online at https://www.reading.gov.uk/housing/council-tax/counciltaxhelp/. A further one-off grant has also been made available for all Council Tax support recipients next year.
Alongside caring for and supporting vulnerable residents thorough the pandemic, buying PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and setting up and operating the One Reading Community hub, which provided a lifeline for many vulnerable residents, has added significant costs. Some fundamental Council income streams have stopped completely for many months. Leisure centres and theatres have been closed for long periods, there have been major losses in car parking revenue and a fall in council tax and business rates income is a direct result of hardship on residents and local businesses caused by the pandemic.
The Government has provided one-off funding to councils to cover Covid related expenditure and is recompensing councils for 75% of lost income, compared to original 2020/21 forecasts. However, once again the Government’s financial settlement for local government was for one year only. The long-promised reviews of local government funding have again been deferred, making future planning extremely challenging.
To supplement the £34 million in savings and income generation successfully made over the last three years, further initiatives to save £28 million have been identified in the Council’s Medium-Term Financial Strategy to 2023/24, £15.1 million of which relates to 2021/22. The 2021/22 budget has been balanced using £2.78 million of one-off reserves – possible owing to the Council’s prudent approach over recent years to create a platform of greater financial stability. Additional savings will be required as part of the 2022 and 2023 budgets.
The draft budget proposes a range of savings, efficiencies and additional income across a variety of services in order to protect frontline services. Examples include savings generated through reduced waste tonnage and the introduction of the new food waste collection service to drive up recycling rates; procurement of a new Council IT contract; a more streamlined and efficient customer service model; increasing the use of assistive technology in adult social care; and extra income generated through on street pay and display and the Council’s Direct Services offer. These sit alongside a series of service reviews where efficiencies have been provisionally identified and which require further investigation and staff consultation.
A total of 114 responses were received to the Council’s recent one-month budget consultation. The majority of responses supported the Council’s draft budget proposals, with the second highest number of responses relating to the Council needing to spend more on road maintenance.
The findings tally with the results of a recent residents’ survey, which involved 1,000 representative residents of the borough. Road and pavement repairs again came out as the highest priority area. 77% said they are satisfied with their local area as a place to live, compared with 65% in the 2018 Citizens Panel Survey. 64% said they were satisfied with the way the Council operates, a significant improvement on the 38% figure in the 2018 panel survey.
Councillor Brock added:
“While the impact of Covid has been felt by every Council, this remains an ambitious budget which protects frontline services and invests in Reading’s recovery.
“Residents have repeatedly told us they want us to prioritise improving roads. This budget delivers on that with Reading’s biggest ever investment in road surfaces. Right across Reading we are doing everything in our power to tackle the housing crisis locally, making the very best possible use of buildings and sites to create new truly affordable Council homes.
“We are modernising services, including building two modern new swimming pools. Purpose-built schools will be constructed for children with special education needs and we are delivering new, modern, housing for older and vulnerable residents, giving them more choice to live independently with the support they need at hand.
“We are also driving forward our net zero carbon target by 2030 with the imminent roll out of food waste collections across the town and major investments in energy efficient buildings and in renewable energy.”
At the same February 15th Policy Committee is a proposal for a new Council Tax, Local Council Tax Reduction Scheme and Housing Benefit Civil Penalty Policy.
While the vast majority of Council Tax payers and Housing Benefit claimants are law abiding and inform the Council of any change in their circumstances which could affect their eligibility for a discount, exemption or reduction, or affect the amount of Housing Benefit paid to them, some do not. Where this happens it can incur significant costs to the Council. For example, during 2019/20, Housing Benefit overpayment invoices totalled £1,793,332 as a result of claimant error, either due to delay in notification of changes that affected entitlement or incorrect information being supplied. In addition, Council Tax Support totalling £326,268 was cancelled under the same circumstances and required to be re-billed and recovered.
Under the new policy, penalties of £50 will be imposed for failure to notify the Council of a change in circumstances affecting a Housing Benefit award, with £70 penalties for the Council Tax Reduction, Council Tax discounts or exemptions or where the Council has requested information but this has not been supplied. Where there are extenuating circumstances for residents having not notified the Revenues and Benefits Team as required, these will be considered on a case by case basis.
The proposed new policy aims to encourage Council Tax payers and benefit claimants to contact the Council as soon as there is a change in their circumstances, so that the correct Council Tax bill or benefit payment can be made, and to reduce instances of fraud.
The Policy Committee report can be found at https://democracy.reading.gov.uk/documents/s15926/Council-Tax-Reduction-Scheme-Housing-Benefit.pdf