Another major milestone has been met in the creation of a new council this week, with the agreement of budget recommendations.
The Shadow Executive for Cumberland Council met on 16 February 2023 and agreed the details of the budget which outlines the spending plans for the new Cumberland Council over the coming year.
The plans mean that services will continue as normal from 1 April 2023. They also outline how the council will use resources to manage its transition in the first few months, as well as resources required to transform services to create a more modern organisation and realise the council’s ambitions outlined in the Cumberland Council Plan.
Whilst the budget proposals do include a below-inflation rise in council tax, councillors were keen to encourage anyone on low incomes to apply for the financial support that is available and they may be entitled to. The Council Tax Reduction Scheme is available to eligible households, and can reduce the amount people have to pay in council tax – in some cases to nothing.
Councillors recently 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.
The budget proposals will now be considered by the Shadow Authority for Cumberland Council at its meeting on 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 budgets for Cumbria County Council. A second council, Westmorland and Furness, will start delivering services to the residents of Barrow, Eden and South Lakeland from the same date.
The resulting £300m revenue budget agreed at the Shadow Executive meeting in Carlisle will mean a continuity of services – such as waste collections, planning, and adult and children’s care services - from vesting day.
The council is also currently in negotiations with the government for £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.
The budget also allows the council to deliver on the aspirations of the Cumberland Council Plan, which was agreed last year, and put improving the health and wellbeing of residents at the heart of everything it does.
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 to develop 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.”
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.
Bringing the different councils together means that council tax charges have to be harmonised. The proposed budget seeks to do this from 1 April 2023 based on a weighted average of current band D bills. Shadow Executive members felt this was the fairest option as it means every resident in each band will be paying the same for their council services from day one, and ensures an adequate level of council tax income to fund council services.
This proposal was supported by the majority – some 54% - of people who responded to the council’s consultation using its online or hard-copy questionnaire.
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.
Therefore, councillors agreed to propose a below inflation 4.99% increase in council tax bills. The increase proposed is for 2.99% on core council tax and 2% for Adult Social Care. If agreed at the Shadow Authority meeting this 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, the majority of whom did not support a 4.99% rise.
Shadow Executive members recognised that many households are struggling financially with the rising cost of living, and encouraged those on low incomes to apply for the financial support available to them.
Members were also keen to ensure that there was sufficient council tax income to fund vital council services that many residents rely on, especially those who are particularly vulnerable.
Cllr Cannon added: “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.
“As an Executive, we do also recognise that the cost-of-living crisis is having an impact on every household – and disproportionally on those with low incomes, but we have little choice but to propose council tax rises this year.
“The alternative to council tax rises would be cuts to 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 will of course continue to support those most in need and on low incomes through the Council Tax Reduction Scheme which we recently made enhancements to what is already a very generous scheme. This can mean that eligible residents can end up not having to pay council tax at all. I’d encourage anyone who may be eligible to apply for the support as soon as possible.”
Residents on low incomes will continue to receive financial support through the Council Tax Reduction Scheme. The enhancements to the scheme start on 1 April 2023. Anyone eligible for the assistance, but who has not applied, should contact their local council.
The proposed 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.
More information on the proposed budget can be found on the cumberland.gov.uk website.