Posted: 22.02.21 at 12:52 by Daniel Clark - Local Democracy Reporter
Devon County Council has approved a 4.99 per cent council tax increase as part of budget proposals that will see more funding for vulnerable children, adult social care and health, and repairing potholes.
More than £37million of additional funding will be pumped into vital services for the 2021/22 financial year, with an £21.7million earmarked for adult care and health, and £11.4million for children’s services.
In addition, there will be £600,000 to tackle the county’s potholes and road drainage, and a £600,000 hardship fund for residents who have been hard hit economically by the pandemic.
But the average Band D council tax bill for Devon’s services will rise by 4.99 per cent to help pay for the increases – that’s 1.99 per cent for general services and three per cent dedicated solely to adult care, meaning the Band D bill will rise by £71.82 to £1,511.28 – the equivalent of £1.38 extra a week.
Councillors rejected an amended budget proposed by the Independent Group that would have seen only a three per cent rise in council tax for adult social care charged, as well as proposals by the Liberal Democrat Group that would have seen more money taken from reserves to be spent on highways, the economy and mental health provision.
Putting forward his proposed budget, Conservative leader of the council, Cllr John Hart, said: “This is a good budget for the people of Devon. It provides significant additional resources to adult social care and health, children’s services and highways, which are the things that matter most to our Devon residents.
“Caring for the elderly and disabled, children and the vulnerable are our highest priorities and we know that we have immense pressure on both our adult and children’s services and this budget means we can maintain and improve what we are offering.
“We will still support rurality, rural buses, and highways but we will also look to invest in our green agenda. We will continue to invest in LED lighting on our streetlights, saving money but also cutting our carbon emissions.
“There will be more charging points for electric cars, solar panels on the roofs of our buildings and we are looking for more land to plant trees to offset our carbon footprint.
“We are very conscious that many people living in Devon are on fixed and low incomes but every year we have to balance imposing more costs on them with the need to ensure our most vulnerable residents get the help and support they need and deserve and all our residents get the best services we can provide.
“This budget means an extra £1.38 a week for the average Band D household and I believe that is justifiable so we can both maintain the services we provide and endeavour to improve them.
“The backdrop to the budget is one of huge uncertainty and risk – we do not know how long the pandemic will continue or what the longer term impact on the economy, public health and demand for services will be.
“Key to the authority’s financial resilience are our reserves and, compared to other county councils, Devon is just above half way in the league table.
“I am pleased to say that the county treasurer has again been able to confirm that our reserves are adequate.
“The budget does not include any addition to our reserves for next year, all available money has been used to invest in our services.
“Our reserves will not be used to support ongoing service costs as this is unwise, but we will be using reserves to invest in economic recovery, public health and service transformation. Even after this investment, at the end of next year, reserves are expected to remain at a prudent level.”
Cllr Hart continued: “Against a backdrop of increased demand and cost pressures, it is necessary to reluctantly propose an increase in council tax this year which will provide £17million of additional funding and the budget strikes a balance between service needs and affordability
“This is a budget for the people of Devon, we are investing in the people of Devon, and it is a progressive budget for Devon.”
Cllr James McInnes, deputy leader of the council, added: “This is a budget for the people of Devon and it delivers services for the most vulnerable people, gives business the support where we can, and we will continue to do so.
“We are hopefully coming to the end of the pandemic but we don’t know what the world will be beyond it, so to take money out of reserves now would be irresponsible.”
Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the opposition Labour group, said that they would be supporting what he called a budget with a “socialist vision”.
He said: “It is vital that we take stock, learn lessons and look to face the future and no-one has got through this year without being touched by the impact of the pandemic, and claps on a Thursday evening don’t pay bills and it’s completely outrageous that we have been presented with a public pay freeze.
“Again in Devon, we are trapped as a council tax freeze would have both short team and long term effects on our financial position and instead of the promised ‘end to austerity’, we got a council tax bombshell for hard pressed families.
“The administration’s budget has highlighted many of the issues which the Labour Group have been concerned about for some years, and have arguing for on numerous occasions.
“We have before us today a budget that sees substantial additional investment in our children’s services, adult and care, highways and environment, in addition to other specific areas that we care deeply about, such as domestic violence services.
“The investment going into economic development, supporting and encouraging small businesses and enterprises, and a robust public health offer could not be more essential.
“We especially welcome the additional hardship funding for those who need extra help and support and the grants for community and charity groups.
“As a responsible opposition, after careful consideration and discussion, we recognise and acknowledged this strongly, so as an investing, progressive, expanding budget, full of Labour Party values, often with a socialist vision, I can confirm, that we will be supporting and voting for the budget this year."
Cllr Carol Whitton, Labour deputy group leader, added: “2020/21 is surely a year we will never forget. The pandemic shone a light on the deep discrepancies in the population and the health and wellbeing and the economic situation on our residents and how great the gulf is between the most deprived and the most vulnerable.
“The budget has sought to address some of the issues of deprivation so it is hard not to welcome the uplifts in some budget lines in adult social care, children’s services and those affected by domestic violence, so I will support the budget.
“But I do with a heavy heart as predicated on the increase in council tax, and council tax is a regressive tax that hits the same individuals who this budget aims to assist the hardest.”
But Cllr Alan Connett, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, put forward alternative budget plans that he said “delivers more to the people of Devon and begins the journey of recovery that our county needs”.
Their plans would have seen £6.15million taken from reserves, with £3.4million to go towards pothole repairs and investing in cycling and walking, £500,000 for communities who want 20mph speed limits, £500,000 in a ‘Green Devon’ scheme, a £1million economic support fund to promote ‘Made in Devon’, and £750,000 for mental health support for school children coping with the lasting impact of lockdown.
He said: “In the news this week, we are learning that hospital admissions of nine to 12 year olds because of self-injury across the country averaging 10 a week. We need to stop and take that in. Children as young as nine are self-harming - action is needed.
“Our plan, to give a real boost to counselling and mental health support for children and young people is a big step in the right direction.
“In our view, the help needs to be put in place now, rather than in a year or so when the support may simply be too late for some children and young people because they will have suffered with the torments of poor mental health for some time.
“Now is the time to act. The county council clearly has sufficient funds to be able to put in place a scheme to help support children and young people across the county experiencing mental health problems.”
Independent Group leader Cllr Frank Biederman put forward another amendment which would have seen £10.5million taken from reserves to fund their proposals.
He called for a ‘council tax holiday’, by not implementing the 1.99 per cent rise proposed, £1million in rural cycle routes, £1million in a lengthsperson service and to invest £200,000 in new books for the Library Service.
He said: “Clearly the main problem for funding vital services through council tax is the unfair levels of government support Devon gets against urban areas, it is also more costly to deliver services in a rural area such as ours.
“All we hear is about the levelling up of the North of England, it’s time that Devon MP’s and our own council started shouting about this, simply towing the party line is having a devastating impact on our residents.
“We believe with the hard times we are experiencing at the moment and with the impact on people’s incomes, using some of our significant reserves in support of our community is a right and proper thing to do.
“We have accumulated huge amounts of reserves over the years and surely they are there for hard times such as now.”
After more than two hours of debate, councillors rejected the Independent Group’s amended budget by 38 votes to 11, with seven abstentions, and then the Liberal Democrats’ amended budget by 38 votes to 12, with seven abstentions.
Councillors then voted by 43 votes to 10, with three abstentions, for the Conservative Group’s budget.
The Liberal Democrats and the Independent Group voted against the budget, while the three abstentions were from Cllrs Yvonne Atkinson (Labour), Brian Greenslade (Ind) and Tony Inch (Conservative). The remaining Conservatives and Labour members voted for the budget.
County treasurer Mary Davis, in her report, had told councillors: “The budget for 2021/22 includes significant investment in core services to support the most vulnerable people in Devon.
“It must be noted however that we are in unprecedented times and the authority faces significant risk of increased demand for services, increased costs and reducing funding. We face a challenging future in every respect, and it will not be an easy path to navigate.”
Devon’s chief executive Phil Norrey said when the budget-making process began last year the county was looking at a shortfall of £100million to maintain its services.
“With prudent management and making use of our reserves, we have reduced that gap significantly,” he said.
“Reserves are money we keep for a rainy day and this is certainly a rainy day.
“Our whole emphasis through the budget process has been on those who have been most badly affected by COVID.
“We want to support the most disadvantaged and some 73 per cent of the budget spend is on the most vulnerable.
“We’ve not only been thinking about the short-term pandemic but the longer term issues as well, in addition to how we are going to lead the economic recovery in Devon.”