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Surrey’s Budget to Top £1bn After £250m in ‘Savings’ Over Three Years

Published on: 11 Feb, 2021
Updated on: 11 Feb, 2021

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

County council leader Tim Oliver said the council could have been “pushed to the brink” by the pandemic if they had not “got their finances in order” over the past three years.

Efficiencies of more than £250 million during this period means that in the coming financial year, SCC has a budget topping £1 billion for the first time, without eating into its reserves, a 3.6% bigger spend than budgeted for this year.

This was approved by full council on Tuesday (February 9) but opposition members said residents were paying the price for the balanced budget in cuts to services and, despite these, the number of six-figure council salaries had almost tripled.

Cllr Mel Few (Con, Foxhills, Thorpe & Virginia Water), the outgoing cabinet member for resources, said the overall outlook for 2021-22 was stable.

He said: “The budget reflects the extremely focused efforts and successes of the major transformation programmes and efficiencies driven through the council which commenced a little over three years ago and has delivered efficiencies of more than £250 million, and resulted in the finances of the county being in a significantly better state than ever before.”

Cllr Tim Oliver

Cllr Oliver (Con, Weybridge), described “a steep hill to climb” on being elected leader in 2018, the year Surrey’s finance director resigned, and said they had managed to cope with the year’s unexpected financial challenges only because of “the hard work and dedication of Surrey County Council over the past three years to get our finances in order”.

He added: “It has to be said that a few years ago, a major unforeseen issue such as Covid could have pushed Surrey to the brink. But not now.

“The transformation of the council during that time has put us in a strong financial position, enabling us to provide financial security and certainty in guiding Surrey and our Local Resilience Forum partners through the past 12 months.”

Cllr Chris Botten

Even Chris Botten, the group leader of Surrey Opposition Forum, praised the progress made. He said: “The huge amount that has progressed in terms of getting our budget back on a proper footing has been significant, led by outstanding and talented officers with a huge amount of integrity.

“I’m sure the leader will testify, the dark days of the CIPFA [Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy] report which his predecessor got us into, have begun to recede in the background.”

Residents’ Association and Independent group leader Nick Darby said: “The cost of putting things right is illustrated by the apparent need to increase the number of officers earning more than £100,000 a year from nine to 26.

Cllr Nick Darby

“It does become increasingly difficult to tell residents Surrey is making necessary organisational savings when year on year more senior officers, however talented, are added to the payroll at this level of salary, a 300 per cent increase in just a few years.”

He added: “Efficiencies are largely cuts by another name, hundreds of millions of pounds in recent years, for instance services such as youth centres and Sure Start children’s centres disappearing.”

Zully Grant-Duff (Con, Reigate), cabinet member for corporate suppor,t said it was just bureaucracy that had been cut, and Cllr Oliver said officers were getting a “fair market salary”.

Council staff are to have their salaries frozen, “except for those targeted for the lower-paid employees”.

Children’s and adult services together make up 62.8 per cent of the council’s spending; £1.72 million is spent on them every day of the year.

After this, the largest chunk of money (13.9 per cent) will go on maintaining roads, pavements and bridges, managing the countryside and delivering public transport.

Cllr Botten (Lib Dem, Caterham Hill), said more should be spent on road safety schemes, adding that fighting for such funding on the council’s local committee was like “sitting in an acid bath having your toenails pulled out”. His motion was voted down, 59 against 13.

Children’s services and adult social care

Next year’s budget assumes efficiencies of £41.2m can be made, similar in scale to this year’s £38m target. And about 80 per cent of these will fall on children’s services and adult social care, which both face growing demand.

There are transformation programmes in place in both areas. The council is to invest £74m in providing more specialist school places in mainstream and special schools in Surrey, so children with special educational needs and disabilities can be placed closer to home, with 213 places to arrive in the coming year.

This is hoped to tackle a historic and ongoing overspend, caused in part by the higher cost of independent placements and travelling outside the county.

There is also a shift from residential care and into the community, with £83m pledged to develop 725 affordable Extra Care dwellings for older people and £48m for 500 independent living homes for people with learning disabilities or autism.

The council is considering introducing charging for some limited children’s services, as well as possible charges for on-street parking, and restarting library fees and charges.

Cabinet member Mary Lewis (Con, Cobham), said: “We’re trying to bring fewer teenagers into care, for all the reasons about outcome and what’s right for them. We want to reduce the number of section 20 agreements where parents effectively hand over their teenagers to us without any court case being involved.

“We’re going to say in those cases, if we can’t help parents to keep children safe at home, if they insist in saying they want their children to be cared for by us, there’s a possibility of charging for bed and board.

“But less than 2.5% of our total efficiencies target is anything to do with charging.”

Cllr Nick Harrison (Resident Association & Independent, Nork & Tattenhams), chair of the resources select committee, noted an “increased staff vacancy factor”, adding: “In other words hold back on staff recruitment. Given all our worries about children’s mental health, this is unacceptable.”

Independent councillor Nikki Barton (Haslemere) questioned why more was not allocated to mental health. “It seems to me this is almost a business as usual budget, for mental health, whereas in fact the Covid pandemic has led to an absolute crisis in youth mental health.

“More than 1,000 people are on the Guildford CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services] waiting-list for example. These are young people in deep crisis. I don’t see any acknowledgement of this in this budget.”

Cllr Oliver said: “We have seen an exponential increase in the demand for mental health services. There is about a £400,000 net increase on the budget for mental health services. This is also the responsibility of the health system.”

He said the CAMHS waiting list will have been cleared by April so the new provider, The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, will not inherit any backlog.

Concerns and hopes for beyond 2021-22

Looking further ahead, Cllr Few said: “Local government funding remains highly uncertain over the medium-term, with a number of factors likely to result in significant changes to our funding position beyond 2021-22.”

Income from the council’s main funding source, council tax (77 per cent) is volatile and business rates revenue also remains uncertain. Repeat of a one-off Covid-19 government grant of £51.2m for the coming year was said to be unlikely.

As well as the ongoing impact of Covid-19, he flagged growth in demand for services, and the council is anticipating having to make £72m more efficiencies over the four years that follow.

Cllr Becky Rush (Con, Warlingham), who has replaced Cllr Few as cabinet member for resources, said their £1.9 billion capital programme up to 2026 was ambitious and would play a considerable role in delivering sustainable revenue budgets in the future.

Spending planned over the next five years also includes £200 million on flood alleviation, £139 million on Farnham projects, £100 million on Your Fund Surrey for community projects and £48 million on ultra-low emission buses and minibuses.

Cllr Darby had concerns about the resulting increase in borrowing “inevitably putting self-inflicted pressure on other services”.

Surrey’s capital programme requires the council to borrow nearly £1.15 billion, more than doubling this year’s £35 million costs of borrowing, to £74m in 2025-26.

“I have to question whether that is prudent, putting us at the very top end when compared with comparable authorities,” he said.

Sale of Kingston’s County Hall would achieve “nowhere near” the £66 million spent on new bases at Woodhatch and Brooklands, he said, adding to borrowing costs.

And he said more than £500,000 had been “wasted” on a bid for unitary status and a Woking office purchase that were both abandoned.

Cllr Oliver said unitarisation for Surrey was a “government-led initiative abandoned by the government”.

Cllr Darby also worried about property investments losing value, “encouraged as we were by central government to make up any shortfall in council tax by investing in commercial property.

“With these sitting on tens of millions of pounds of losses on paper, we’ve stored up problems for the future,” he said.

Cllr Few said the council remained within its borrowing limits and could afford to pay back its loans.

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