The days are counting down to Friday the 15th February when the county council’s budget will be presented for approval.
Each year the budget process has got tougher and I have to admit this particular budget has been the very toughest so far. From 2010 we have saved £216 million from our budget as central government funding has reduced each year.
In some ways it has been a useful exercise as we have challenged ourselves on how we deliver services. We have transformed the way we work to become a much leaner organisation. It’s essential we provide good value for money because I know that every pound counts to you and to us!
However, next to the NHS, we are the largest provider of essential services, such as children’s and adults’ social care and the demand from these services, combined with our statutory duties, have put an additional strain on the finances. Of course, we will meet these demands. We want to give children the best start in life and we have many, many children who need our care, support and protection. Sadly their start hasn’t been the best up until now and we have to help them.
The number of children with learning difficulties and children who need educational health care plans has grown dramatically over the last four years and we have a statutory duty to meet their needs, which we do. So with the growing demands we now have to look very carefully at what is our statutory duty and non-statutory duty and this is very hard for everyone. Of course we would all like to continue what we are doing and do more but in the current financial climate this is just not possible.
We want to develop the preventative agenda which will help stem demand and provide better outcomes for resident, but we have to ask whether they are affordable in our present position. Sadly, the answer is sometimes no. That’s why we are lobbying the government for fairer funding, in order to fully meet our obligations and develop the preventative agenda for residents today and tomorrow.
Council tax rise
Because of the financial challenge we face, we will be setting the council tax increase at 4.99% in our budget - something not lightly done by this administration. We know it adds an additional cost to your household budget. And that’s why it is even more important for us to continue to drive down cost to get the very best value for money.
Like many other councils we have been looking for ways to increase our income stream, using our capital or taking advantage of low borrowing rates.
We have taken, what some may describe as an unusual route of investing in solar energy. We have built two solar farms on redundant land owned by the council. Our latest Westhampnett site is an old 35 acre landfill site which now hosts 26,000 solar panels. It provides green, clean energy to 2,400 homes. We had no subsidies for this scheme and have invested in battery storage too. This releases energy when really required – such as during those dark winter nights that we have been living through recently. We not only make money from this investment but we also provide a much-needed energy source. One thing is for sure, we always want the lights on!
Overall with all our solar panel initiatives over the last 5 years, we are providing that much needed energy to over 4,000 homes. We have more plans for the future so as a County Council we are doing our bit to tackle climate change.
But sustainable energy is not the only area we are focusing on.
Major investment in infrastructure
We are investing £86m in our countywide District & Borough Growth Partnership Deals, £117m in our major road schemes, £22.5m in digital infrastructure, supporting our businesses and rural communities and investing in more special support centres to help to keep students with special educational needs and disabilities in mainstream schools.
And it’s good to remember the things we have achieved. We are the top three performing local authority in the country for supporting troubled families and top five performing local authority in the country for Delayed Transfers of Care from hospital attributed to social care. We have also been improving the health and wellbeing of residents with a 73% reduction in sugar in primary school meals.
Once the budget is approved we start preparations for the next budget – in such tight financial times it is a relentless process. As ever we are guided by our ambitions in our West Sussex Plan. We will look at innovation, we will plan and prepare and we will continue to lobby government for fairer funding in the future.
The Full Council meeting starts at 10.30am on Friday February 15 at County Hall. Members of the public can attend in person or follow the webcast online.