East Sussex households will see their council tax bills rise again this year, after county councillors agreed their annual budget for 2020/21.
On Tuesday (February 11), members of East Sussex County Council approved increasing its share of council tax by 3.99 per cent – adding £57.20 on to an annual bill for a Band D property.
The measure came as part of the Conservative-controlled authority’s annual budget for 2020/21, which laid out plans to both save £3.5m through cuts and increased parking charges and to spend an additional £6.5m in other areas.
Introducing the budget proposals, cabinet member for resource Nick Bennett put this extra spending down to the council’s ‘lobbying and prudent planning’ but warned of pressures in future years..
Cllr Bennett said: “Our lobbying and prudent planning has given us the opportunity to allocate £6.6m additional funding next year, once savings identified last February are taken.
“Initial proposals for the use of the funding have been considered by cabinet, scrutiny committees and partners over the last several months. In light of their views and guided by our core offer and agreed priorities the budget incorporates investment in activities to reduce further demand.
“While we have more flexibility than anticipated next year, demand continues to grow from the most vulnerable people in our community and we only have local funding available to meet those needs.
“Local business rate growth is low and we have relied more and more on council tax to keep our services going. We understand the pressure this puts on our residents and their domestic budgets, but we have had to make very difficult choices, to prioritise services for children and vulnerable adults.
“But even with the Government’s commitment to provide additional social care funding we project another £12.5m funding gap by 2022/23 if we do not receive further revenue.”
The extra spending included a £1m boost to highways for patching work, line repainting and installing dropped kerbs, as well as money for improvements to residential homes for children with disabilities and delays to some previously agreed savings.
However, the budget also included savings of £3.5m – made up of cuts to staffing in some areas and increased parking charges.
These included an £188,000 cut to the council team responsible for assessing whether children have special educational needs needing additional support.
Known as the council’s I-SEND Education, Care and Health Plan (ECHP) assessment service, the cut is expected to slow down the process of applying for support such as specialist education or classroom assistance.
Concerns about this particular cut were raised in amendments proposed by both the council’s Liberal Democrat and Labour groups.
Labour’s amendment only called for the I-SEND service cut to be reversed, with funding to be drawn from reserves.
The Lib Dem amendment proposed further funding for the service as part of a package of measures, which would have seen cuts made to spending elsewhere to offset it.
These included a £500,000 cut to the council’s communications team and a £300,000 cut to its waste management department, with a wider review of council staffing also recommended.
It also proposed for the highways programme to be funded from a different pot of council money instead of the one-off funding.
This would allow for extra spending on support for carers and the SEND service, the Lib Dems said.
The Lib Dem amendment also called for a lower increase to council tax, leaving the increase at around 3.5 per cent rather than the 3.99 per cent agreed.
Cllr Phillip Daniel, the Liberal Democrat group’s finance spokesman, said this measure was intended to ‘send a signal’ and address the fact that East Sussex residents were among the county’s highest council tax bills last year.
He said: “In any country as prosperous as this one there should be a reliable central government contribution to those services that are locally delivered.
“The idea that local property taxes can meet all these services is a fantasy. Local people pay national taxes themselves and they deserve a contribution to local services.
“I agree with the point, Cllr Bennett raised, that our residents are being asked to bear an enormous burden. They are asked to take the cuts, they are asked to pay the additional council tax and they are asked to pay the additional fees and charges.
“Should we always be asking them to pay that, when it is the deprivation of central government money that causes that to happen?
“We want to send a signal here that there is a government responsibility. There is a balance to be had and relief to be given to local residents.”
However, the Lib Dem proposals came in for heavy criticism from outside, with other parties accusing the group of ‘playing politics’.
Criticisms centred around the reduced increase to council tax, which others argued would have little effect on individual households but leave the council more than £1.4m out of pocket.
Among those to criticise the proposals was Labour group co-leader Godfrey Daniel, who said: “There is no way I can vote for something that reduces the amount of income to the county by £1.4m. That is £1.4m you can’t spend on anything else.
“I have total sympathy with people – you shouldn’t have to spend that much in council tax – but quite frankly we are here to provide services and you need money to provide those services.
“That means the following year, you have a smaller base to put any increase on as well. It is almost ever-lasting. You have to find that £1.4m before you even start next year.
“I think that is just a newspaper headline. It makes no financial sense whatsoever.”
Cllr Godfrey Daniel also criticised the job cuts suggested in the savings proposed in the amendment.
Conservative council leader Keith Glazier, meanwhile, described the proposal as ‘electioneering’ and ‘a ludicrous political point to be making’.
At the vote both the Labour and Liberal Democrat amendments were defeated, with the budget proposals going through as originally proposed.