Budget agreed for Cumberland Council’s first year

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The Shadow Authority for Cumberland Council has agreed its first budget at a meeting held in Carlisle this week [1 March 2023]. 

On 1 April 2023, Cumberland Council starts providing all council services in the current Allerdale, Carlisle and Copeland areas. Therefore, since being elected in May last year, the Shadow Executive has been working to bring together the budgets of the borough and city councils, as well as split the finances for Cumbria County Council. 

The financial plans for 2023/24 ensure that the new Cumberland Council can continue to provide the services to its residents from vesting day – such as waste collections, planning, and adult and children’s care services. It also provides the resources required to help meet the aspirations in the Cumberland Council Plan, transform services over the next few years and support those residents who are most in need. 

The budget has already been through some rigorous oversight at the Council’s Shadow Scrutiny Committee. There was also a survey of residents and local organisations in January. 

The Council made it clear in its Council Plan that it wants to improve the health and wellbeing of all residents in Cumberland. This budget starts this process, by providing the resources needed to tackle some of the inequalities in the area.  

The budget means that those on lowest incomes will continue to receive financial support from 1 April 2023 such as through the Council Tax Reduction Scheme.   

These schemes are set by local councils, and Cumbrian residents currently benefit from one of the most generous schemes in the country which can mean that those on low incomes can see their bill reduced – in some cases to nothing. This budget means that this scheme can continue for the residents of Cumberland.  

Councillors have also enhanced the scheme so that from 1 April 2023, those in receipt of Universal Credit will have any successful application for council tax support backdated to the same date they received Universal Credit. This will mean they will receive their full entitlement to council tax support. 

In addition, Councillor Lisa Brown, the deputy leader, announced a further ambition to look into how Cumberland Council can provide free school meals for all school children. The Authority agreed a ‘Right to Food’ motion last summer to ensure tackling food insecurity was a priority for it.  

The council is also currently working with the government on £40m additional support. This will help it cover the extra costs for a smooth transition to the new council, and allow the managed transformation of services over the coming years to make the council more effective and efficient in the long-term. Such costs include contractual changes and investment in ICT as the four councils’ services are brought together with the ultimate aim of developing a high-performing council providing excellent, efficient and enterprising public services.  

The transformation programme will mean the council is able to start delivering on the other aspirations of the Cumberland Council Plan, which was agreed last year. These include working more closely with local communities when designing its services to ensure they meet the different needs of residents, helping to tackle global environmental issues and climate change, and building an economy that works for local businesses and residents.  

Presenting the budget, Councillor Barbara Cannon, portfolio holder with responsibility for finance and assets, said: “This budget has been set with a strong focus on a safe and legal transition from the four sovereign authorities. But it is more than just that. It also sets the foundations for a new, modern, organisation and culture that is more effective and efficient and serves the needs of the people in Cumberland in the years to come. 

“I always say that the budget of a council underpins the Council Plan. That plan makes it clear that we wish to improve the health and wellbeing of all our residents and this budget provides the resources to start work to achieve this goal. 

Councillor Mark Fryer, Leader of the Council, added: “I want the new Cumberland Council to enable the potential that the people of Cumberland have. And I want us to do whatever is needed to support people to unleash that potential. Be it by putting health and wellbeing at the heart of everything we do, by providing brilliant public services, or by supporting our most vulnerable children and adults.  

“Inequalities are the biggest blockage to potential, so for Cumberland I want to see us with our cross-cutting approach tackle inequalities as one. That is why our community led approach is so important. We don’t want to waste scarce resources on top down prescriptive services.”  

Council tax accounts for a significant share of the funding for the authority, especially as government support has declined in recent years. Recent annual price rises of more than 10% has put further pressure on local authority budgets and the council is keen to address the issues, and growing demand, within the social care market.  

Bringing the different district and county councils together means that council tax charges have to be harmonised by law. To achieve this, the budget uses a weighted average of current band D bills.  

To ensure that services continue as normal and those most in need get the support they need, councillors also agreed to an average 4.99% rise in council tax from 1 April 2023. 

The increase remains about half the current rate of inflation, and is split 2.99% on core council tax and 2% for Adult Social Care. It will result in an extra £1.58 a week for an average Band D bill.  

When making the decision, councillors took into account the concerns raised by those who had responded to the budget consultation which was held in January this year. Over 750 people and organisations responded to the consultation through the council’s online portal or by using the paper-based forms.  

Whilst the majority of those who responded to the council’s consultation agreed with its approach to harmonisation, some 57% did not support a 4.99% rise. 

Cllr Cannon added: “I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to respond to our consultation – either though our website or by post. We do consider these views when making these decisions.  

“By law we have to harmonise council tax levels, and there are different ways to approach this. On balance we believe it is important to ensure that all residents in the Cumberland area pay the same, per council tax band, for the services that Cumberland delivers, which is why we have gone for a weighted average. Choosing to go with the lowest council tax would cost a substantial amount of income and would result in a squeeze on front line services that protect the most vulnerable.  

“As an Executive we do recognise that the cost-of-living crisis is having an impact on every household – and disproportionately on those with low incomes, but we have little choice but to propose council tax rises this year. The alternative...would be cuts in services at a time when we believe those most affected by the cost of living crisis need us and these services to be there for them.  

“We can mitigate the impact on households with the lowest incomes via the Council Tax Reduction Scheme. The scheme is one of the most generous in the country. In addition, other measures are being put in place to help people on lower incomes such as the school clothing grants.” 

Cllr Cannon also explained that a lot of work had gone into harmonising fees and charges from 1 April 2023 in accordance with the principles agreed last year, but that there remained some more work to harmonise them all. 

Cllr Fryer added: “I’m confident today that this initial budget gives us the launch pad that is pragmatic and flexible enough to see us through the coming months. And bring on 1 April, because the work on the next budget starts then.” 

The budget also brings together the approved capital programmes in the Cumberland area of the four councils for the years 2023/24 to 2026/27. Together this amounts to £283m in investment over the coming years for schemes in Carlisle through to Workington and Whitehaven and down to Millom. 

The job of putting together the budget has been particularly challenging as it uses the financial management and forecasting of four separate organisations. The government’s financial settlement announced in December 2022 was only for one year, adding to the uncertainty over local authority funding. Therefore, the budget uses robust and prudent assumptions which will be reviewed throughout the next financial year. 

The meeting this week came after the budget recommendations were agreed by the Shadow Executive on 16 February 2023. 

More information on the proposed budget can be found on the cumberland.gov.uk website. 

Notes on the consultation 

  • The consultation was held between 6 January 2023 and 31 January 2023. The consultation was made available on the Cumberland.gov.uk website and hard copy versions were available from libraries, council offices and on request. 

  • The consultation focused on a number of themes; these were:  

  • The options to harmonise council tax rates – to ensure that all residents in the Cumberland area pay the same, per council tax band, for the services that Cumberland Council delivers 

  • The proposed increase in council tax for 2023-24 

  • Consultees were asked about their views on the proposal to harmonise from 1 April 2023 at an average rate. The question was: Do you agree that council tax is harmonised in this way so that everyone in the same band pays the same amount, no matter where they live?  

  • The second question acknowledged the financial pressures faced by many residents due to the rising cost of living, and the support that was available through the Council Tax Reduction Scheme to those most in need. It also outlined how the council was not immune to the same financial pressures and therefore to ensure that the services which residents relied on were protected, it was proposing a below inflation rise of 4.99%. This was split by 2.99% as a base increase and another 2% for adult social care. The question asked was: Do you agree on a rise in council tax of 4.99% to help pay for essential services that will be provided by Cumberland Council, such as waste collection, adults social care, children’s services, and highways? 

  • There were 770 responses to the first question on harmonisation. Some 53.8% of respondents agreed with the proposal to harmonise from 1 April 2023, with some 41.8% disagreeing. Just over 4% responded with “Don’t know”.  

  • In terms of the second question on the proposal to increase council tax by 4.99% there were 773 responses received. Of those who answered, 38.2% of responses agreed with the proposal and 56.9% disagreed. Some 5% responded as “Don’t know”.