Government claims that councils are being given greater spending power “should be taken with a pinch of salt”, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council’s Leader has warned as budget discussions get under way.
Councillor Bob Cook’s comments come as the authority sets out proposals to plug a £2.5million budget gap opened up by rising costs of social care for vulnerable adults and children.
The national crisis in funding for adult social care in particular continues to leave local councils with millions of pounds worth of budget pressures, with no national funding solution in sight.
Cabinet members will consider a proposal to increase Council Tax by 1.9 per cent as well as a proposal to phase in the Government’s Adult Social Care Levy over the next two years when they meet next week (Thursday, February 18).
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on,” said Councillor Cook. “We’ve got the Government trumpeting that councils have more money to spend on services but that should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“What they’re not telling people is that they expect councils to raise 85 per cent of that money by increasing Council Tax, and by charging an Adult Social Care Levy on top of that. That’s their assumption and people need to know.
“The Adult Social Care Levy is actually listed separately on people’s Council Tax bills but sadly, not many people actually read them and so they generally assume the whole increase is down to us when it’s not.
“It’s about time the Government grasped the nettle and fully-funded the cost of adult social care services. Instead they’re passing the buck for a national problem to local taxpayers – families who are already struggling – and leaving councils to take the flak.
“I think we’d all agree that looking after vulnerable adults isn’t an optional thing – these are critical services that cost a lot of money to deliver and in fact a huge chunk of our budget is spent in these areas.
“The costs are rising every single year – not just here but across the country – and it’s one of the main drivers of the budget gaps councils are then left having to fill. We’ve consistently lobbied Government to fund this properly but it’s been ignored.
“That’s despite the fact the Adult Social Care Levy has been in place for five years now, and despite the Prime Minister saying in his first speech when taking office that he would fix the crisis in adult social care once and for all.
“That has most certainly not happened, and I will continue to join council leaders from across the political divides in pushing the Government for action. Even some sort of plan would be a welcome start.”
Band D Council Tax in Stockton-on-Tees is currently £167 lower than the national average.
The proposed increase in Council Tax of 1.9 per cent and Adult Social Care Levy of 2 per cent would add an extra 82 pence per week to bills in Band A in 2021/22.
“We know this will come as a blow at a time when a lot of people are struggling,” said Councillor Cook. “Unfortunately, we’re faced with a choice of putting up Council Tax and charging the Government’s Adult Social Care Levy or cutting services.
“To protect those who would be hardest hit by this, we’re proposing to continue with our Local Council Tax Support Scheme and also make a one-off reduction to Council Tax bills of £150 to around 12,000 taxpayers on low incomes. We’re also holding off charging the full Adult Social Care Levy this year.
“It’s also important that people don’t think our budget pressures are down to COVID.
“We’ve managed to balance the books this current year using one-off COVID-specific funding from the Government and we’re quite sensibly carrying some of that money into the coming year because the pandemic is far from over.
“The funding we’ve had so far has helped us cover the costs of a massive public health effort, increased fees to care homes, PPE for staff and our administration of grants to local businesses.
“It’s also covered the losses suffered by the hotel and the shopping centres we own and enabled us to cover an anticipated fall in the amount of Council Tax collected. Without this one-off money the immediate situation would be a lot worse.
“So, we’re in a position where none of these COVID-related costs are directly impacting on Council Tax in the coming year. What is impacting on Council Tax is the long-standing social care crisis.
“The other thing exacerbating all of this is the Government repeatedly giving councils a one year settlement, which means we have no idea how much funding we’re going to get from year to year so we cannot plan for the medium or long term.
“That kind of uncertainty obviously has a crippling effect and we are of course legally bound to deliver a balanced budget.”
As well as highlighting mounting cost pressures, the budget also includes ongoing investment in the Borough’s schools, roads, housing and town centres.
“We’re still very ambitious and continue to make capital investments to support the Borough’s recovery when the pandemic ends and to make it a better place for future generations,” said Councillor Cook.
“The £52million investment programme in school buildings across the Borough is ongoing, while the restoration of the Globe will be finished by the end of April.
“We also remain wholly committed to continuing our town centres fightback across Billingham, Ingleby Barwick, Norton, Stockton, Thornaby and Yarm. COVID has simply accelerated the need for change in all of our town centres and we’re ahead of the game as we were already onto this well before the pandemic struck.
“We’re on with draft masterplans for each of our town centres and are very much ready to step in and take control wherever we can make positive change happen.
“And despite such challenging financial times, external auditors continue to give us praise for how we are managing our finances.”
The Council’s 2021/22 budget and Medium Term Financial Plan for the following three years up to 2025 will be considered by Cabinet on Thursday, February 18.
Cabinet will then make recommendations to full Council, which meets on Wednesday, February 24 to set the budget and agree the Medium Term Financial Plan.