Council's battle to balance its books

Date: Monday 11th February 2019

CUMBRIA'S top tier local authority faces a battle to balance its books against a backdrop of swingeing cuts and uncertainty over Brexit.

The comments from deputy leader Peter Thornton came as the cabinet voted through budget plans ahead of Thursday's crunch meeting of the full council.

This will be the ninth year of reductions of central government funding which has seen the council’s funding slashed by more than £130 million at a time of ever rising demand.

The draft revenue budget, the medium-term financial plan and the draft capital programme will all go before full council this week.

The council’s revenue support grant in 2011-12 was £148 million, but this year it will be £17.8 million. The authority has so far saved £249 million but needs to find another £47 million over the next three years.

Mr Thornton (Lib Dem, Kendal Strickland and Fell), cabinet member for finance, presented reports to the authority’s decision-making body, which voted through the recommendations.

He said: “This council will be able to pay its way during the next 12 months. You might say this is a modest ambition. But there is more than one council in the UK which would dearly like to be able to say those words and to propose a council tax rise of less than the maximum allowed, as indeed we are proposing in this budget.

“This budget is set against a backdrop of uncertainty — and I can see no end to it within the next few years.

“Whatever choices are made, there are no easy and quick solutions. That much has become painfully obvious, and there are consequences for our future budgets.”

Mr Thornton said that aligning council income with growth might work in the south east of England but was “not so great” for many northern councils.

He also expressed concern over the fate of those Cumbrian businesses which work closely with Europe, describing the spectre of a no-deal Brexit as “disastrous”.

The general fund balance target has been increased from £10 million to £15 million as the council digs into its reserves.

The council has a capital programme of almost £196 million, which includes new residential provision for looked after children which it has said will reduce its reliance on out-of-county placements.

The authority is also poised to open two new care homes in Copeland and in Carlisle in addition to the one already opened in Barrow.