Covid takes its toll as county council predicts £30m budget shortfall

Balancing the 2021/22 budget rests with councillors including (from left) Steve Criswell (Con), Lucy Nethsingha (LibDem)...

Balancing the 2021/22 budget rests with councillors including (from left) Steve Criswell (Con), Lucy Nethsingha (LibDem) and Elisa Meschini (Lab). Picture; ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

Cambridgeshire County Council is predicting a budget shortfall of £30 million next year as it asks for residents to take part in a survey on its finances.

The county council is asking residents to take part in its annual budget survey to give feedback on their experience of living in the county and how best to address the financial challenge.

The council said that before the Covid-19 pandemic it was anticipating a need to make savings of £4 million next year.

It now expects a need to find savings “in the region of £30 million,” which would equate to 4.6 per cent of its anticipated £650 million budget.

Each year the council carries out a doorstep survey with 11,000 randomly selected households asking them about their perceptions of living in Cambridgeshire and views on budget setting, alongside an online survey.

Owing to the pandemic, the council says this year, an independently commissioned survey will be emailed to 15,000 residents across the county and a further 250 contacted for a ten-minute interview by phone.

Councillor Steve Criswell, chair of the council’s communities and partnerships committee, said: “As an efficient and effective council, back in February, we were predicting that we would only need to find £4 million savings to set a balanced budget in 2021/22, but in less than a month, things changed in a way none of us could imagine.

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“We are really grateful for government support so far, but we know from our projections it won’t be enough to meet next year’s projected shortfall – which could be anything up to £30 million.

“So, while we continue to lobby government on continuing support, we need to hear residents’ views too, and this survey will help us do that in the most Covid safe way possible.”

The size of the expected budget shortfall next year has varied considerably over the course of this year as the pandemic’s course has changed and additional government funding has been announced over time.

Opposition groups have welcomed the opportunity for residents to have their say on the situation.

Elisa Meschini, leader of the council’s Labour group, said as a result of entering the pandemic “off the back of ten years of conservative government austerity” the opportunities to generate additional savings “without significantly impacting the delivery of services are reducing in number and scale”.

She said residents’ contributions will also inform opposition budget proposals and that the Labour group is “keen to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society aren’t asked to bear the brunt of the economic damage inflicted by the Covid pandemic”.

Lucy Nethsingha, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group, said the estimated shortfall “is a real worry,” and said her group has “real concerns that a hard Brexit will exacerbate the economic damage” with details on how tariffs may change still unknown.

She said: “We must make sure that both businesses and individuals get the support they need to get back on their feet next year.

“This is not a time for further cuts to local support, and if that means the better off need to pay a couple of pounds a month more to make sure we can support those most in need that is what the council must do.”

In October when the council said it was expecting next year’s budget gap to be £40 million, Conservative Steve Count, council leader, said that unless significant support is provided by the government, the shortfall would have a “huge impact on our ability to deliver services to our citizens”.

At the time, he requested the government provide further funding and greater “financial flexibility” to help the council, which he described as “really well run and financially prudent”.

The county council will be able to increase its share of the council tax by up to five per cent in the next financial year, starting in April.

Final decisions on the budget, including setting council tax, will be made early next year.

An online consultation can be filled out at https://melresearch.co.uk/cambridgeshirebudget2020 and will close after three weeks on December 20.

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