Fair funding review might not bring good news for West Sussex services

County Hall in Chichester
County Hall in Chichester

West Sussex could end up worse off under the government’s fair funding review, county councillors have been warned.

The review, which will affect how much money each local authority receives from the government, is due this year but may not bring good news.

While presenting his draft budget for 2020/21, Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for finance, told a scrutiny committee on Wednesday: “We’re proposing to prepare a strongly evidenced document, clearly setting out how West Sussex has suffered disproportionately large reductions in our government funding since 2010.

“We intend to demonstrate how it is imperative to reverse that trend in order to properly fund all our services, including highways.”

Mr Hunt said the county’s MPs had agreed to ‘campaign strongly’ of behalf of West Sussex.

The draft budget included plans for a council tax rise of 3.99 per cent, two per cent of which would be spent on adult social care.

This would add £55.20 to a Band D bill, taking it from £1,383.57 to £1,438.74. Any increases proposed by district and borough councils as well as Sussex Police would go on top.

Police & Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne launched a survey on Thursday (January 23) to gauge public feeling about a 20p per week/£10 per year rise.

In December, Mr Hunt warned the council there would be a £2.2m budget gap in 2020/21 but that the aim was ‘to present a balanced budget without the use of reserves’.

While acknowledging the draft budget had been ‘set against a backdrop of a very challenging year’, he confirmed to the scrutiny committee that that aim had been achieved.

It wasn’t all cheery news, though. The need to improve the county’s struggling children’s and fire services saw the 2019/20 budget ring up an overspend of £7.4m.

Mr Hunt said this had been covered using money from the budget management reserve. While this was ‘far from ideal’, he said there were plans to rebuild the reserves by around £9m over next four years.

Paying for those improvements is by no means over and another £12m was included in the draft budget for children’s services with another £2.6m for the fire service.

Mr Hunt said: “One of the challenges in preparing the budget was the lack of any certainty to our government funding until just before Christmas when the provisional finance settlement was finally confirmed.

“There was welcome funding announced but once again it was for one year only, which makes any long-term planning very difficult.”

It’s certainly been a rough year for West Sussex and Mr Hunt was well aware of the need to plan for possible challenges still to come.

As such, he doubled the contingency budget – which cushions the impact of unexpected events or emergencies – to £6.8m.

While the 2020/21 budget position was presented as balanced, the papers showed a huge gap of £45m between 2021 and 2024, assuming a council tax rise of 1.99 per cent.

The draft budget will be considered by the cabinet on Tuesday before being put to a meeting of the full council on February 14 for final approval.