NEXT year’s budget has been agreed by Devon County Council, with council tax going up by 4.99 per cent.
The increase will mean the yearly bill for an average Band D property will rise by £77.67 to £1,634.13, but excludes increases to other parts of the tax that fund district councils, police and the fire service.
A full meeting of the council approved the ruling Conservative group’s budget plans on Thursday [16 February], which will see total spending increase from £629 million to £696 million next year – a rise of 10.5 per cent.
Labour supported the plan, despite it being described as ‘far from being a good budget’ by the group’s leader, though it was rejected by the opposition Liberal Democrats.
They had their own amendment to pay for more pothole repairs and 20 mph zones rejected.
Extra money in the budget will mostly go towards spending increases of 18.4 and 8.8 per cent on children’s and adult services respectively.
However, the council tax rise and central funding from government has not been enough for Devon to set a budget without making cuts elsewhere.
As a result, savings, alternative funding and additional income of £47.5 million have been identified, including £26.4 million of savings in adult social care and £12 million taken from reserves.
Addressing councillors, cabinet member for finance Cllr Phil Twiss (Conservative, Feniton) said it was an ‘extraordinary budget for extraordinary times.’
‘Looking back at this time last year, no one in this room or beyond knew what lay in store, with the circumstances we’re all sadly too well aware of today,’ he said, referring to the war in Ukraine and inflation that reached its highest in 40 years.
‘DCC has pulled together as an authority to ensure we continue to provide the best possible services we can for the people of Devon using the finite resources available to us.
‘Increasing council tax bills at a time of rising prices and strains on budgets is not an easy decision that’s been made or that we’ve taken lightly, however the need to protect the most vulnerable people in our society means we have little or no choice.’
But opposition leader Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge) took issue at Cllr Twiss being ‘proud’ of the budget. ‘I’d be embarrassed about this budget,’ he said, accusing Cllr Twiss of being from the ‘school of Trussonomics.’
‘I have some sympathy for you over there,’ Cllr Brazil added. ‘When you joined up and became Conservative councillors, you probably weren’t imagining that you were going to be governed by a bunch of spivs and charlatans … but I ask you, for the sake of the people of Devon, now is the time to turn around and say ‘enough is enough’ to central government.’
One Tory councillor, Dermot McGeough (Northam), did just that. He voted against his own party’s budget and slammed the government, calling on it to take back control of adult social care and children’s services.
‘We’re really, really struggling. It needs to be given back,’ he said. ‘Financially we cannot cope. Why should our residents suffer with such a huge burden on their taxes?
‘Central government need to pull their fingers out of their derrieres and get it sorted for us,’ Cllr McGeough added. ‘It’s not right. It’s not fair.’
The Independent and Green groups also rejected the budget. Independent leader Frank Biederman (Fremington Rural) said he didn’t submit any amendments as it would be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’
He instead used his speech to criticise the ‘wasted money’ spent by the council on private companies for ‘poor outcomes,’ adding: ‘I hope it will focus senior leaders in making changes.’
Addressing the big rise in spending on Devon’s underperforming children’s services – ‘a good news story you would think for children’ – he said: ‘I’m not convinced there is a solid plan for the extra [money] to improve outcomes, and Ofsted are definitely not convinced.’
The government has threatened to intervene over the authority’s long-term failings.
However, Labour did vote in favour of the budget, with the group’s leader Carol Whitton (St David’s and Haven Banks) saying she did so ‘with an extremely heavy heart’ after expressing various concerns. They included the realism of the savings cuts and their potential impact on vulnerable adults.
‘I do not feel there is an alternative but to accept it in [light of] the current financial constraints that are imposed upon the authority,’ she concluded.
The Lib Dems slammed Labour’s support for the Conservative budget, former leader Alan Connett describing it as ‘astonishing,’ but Labour’s Tracey Adams said they were ‘accepting the reality in front of us’.And fellow Labour member
Danny Barnes hit back at ‘the cheek’ of the Lib Dems, outlining how the party was in coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015 when spending cuts were imposed on councils.
Summing up, county council leader John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh & Wembury) said: ‘This is fundamentally a good budget for looking after the old, the young and the vulnerable.’
But he admitted the council had ‘not had good results’ from previous extra spending into children’s services, adding: ‘We have to get better, we are technically in the last chance saloon.’
Councillors approved the budget by a margin of 40 votes to 13.