Monday, May 27, 2024

West Berks 2024/25 Budget – chunky shortfall

West Berkshire Council is struggling to make ends meet.  Still grappling with a nearly £9 million shortfall this year (roughly, £50 per resident), it’s facing a chunky £14 million or so gap – approaching 10% of its £160+ million total revenue – next.  In its November briefing, Councillors explained that the underlying causes were the perennial issues of ever-increasing demand of services (demand for children’s social care, in particular, has sky-rocketed), inflation of costs and wages, and Government funding not keeping up.

 While not at absolute crisis point – West Berks isn’t, like some, facing the “bankruptcy” (called a Section 114 Notice, in the jargon) – there are no easy choices.  Even our Councillors admit that, while they are battling to contain it, some impact on frontline services is inevitable.  Savings of £7.4 million have been identified that don’t require consultation.  A further £3.5 million need a policy change, and up to £1.75 million need a public consultation.  There’s still another £2 million to find.

 West Berks is expected to start a public consultation from Monday 27th November to get residents’ views on ten issues that require consultation.

 Top of the list is the euphemistically termed “restructuring car parking fees” – surely, putting up car park charges! – which could generate £450,000, so long as the increased charges don’t put people off coming into town to use the parking.  Reduced grass cutting and weed treatments could also save around £240,000 – maybe an easy win.

 While probably none of us like the prospect of higher charges, for car parks or anything else, there are some even more challenging options, such as closing the Willow Edge Care Home (or finding an alternative provider) and restructuring funding for adult care transport, which it is hard to see can be achieved unless the frontline service is substantially reduced or a cheaper, likely inferior, service is put in its place.  Council Executives make the point that they are one of only three Councils that still operate care homes and private sector providers, for whom adult care is the core focus of their business, can make good – even better – quality provision at a substantially lower unit cost.

 Likewise, reducing bridge maintenance and reducing litter and dog bins could save, together, about £200,000 but at what cost to safety and public health?  Councillors say they are restructuring services to get costs of maintenance down but keep the core service intact, and they insist there are no public safety or health risks.

 Councillors urge residents to submit their views – and even their ideas for other options.  Details are available online.

 West Berks delivers over 700 different services.  Councillors have given assurances that spending on core services continues and services are available to the public and are operating as usual, although staff shortages mean slower response times.  Those look likely to be hard-wired in, with some vacant posts now simply being abolished.  No doubt, it also means that delivery of LibDem manifesto promises, such as phasing out the green bin tax (which had already been deferred earlier this financial year) and dealing with potholes, will be pushed back even further.

Cllr Iain Cottingham also gave a radio interview to Kennet Radio and this will be broadcast later in the week.