That was the message from Lancashire County Council’s ruling Conservative group as the authority set its annual budget, which will see council tax rise by the maximum 3.99 percent – with half of the increase being ringfenced for the most vulnerable.
County Hall will spend £419m on adult services in 2022/23 – meaning that the department takes a 44 percent share of the council’s coffers. It emerged earlier this month that the authority is planning for an additional £92m in adult social care spending over the next three years.
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The council tax hike – which was backed as being necessary by Labour, but opposed by the Liberal Democrats – formed part of a budget in which politicians of all colours put forward plans for significant additional spending on a host of County Hall services and initiatives.
There were occasionally glimmers of agreement between the parties about what should be Lancashire’s priorities – but far less so about how to deliver on them.
County council leader Phillippa Williamson said that the financial plan for the next 12 months was designed to support “our emergence and recovery from the pandemic”.
“It also highlights our focus on delivering the council’s full range of services, our responsibility to care for our most vulnerable residents, to protect the environment and to grow our economy.
“We should always think very long and very hard about setting council tax rates. We know that council tax bills are a significant part of any family’s outgoings and we all recognise that all household budgets are being stretched,” said County Cllr Williamson, who added that it was “with some reluctance” that bills would have to go up.
Cabinet member for adult services Graham Gooch said that his department spent £1.15m per day – supporting 36,000 people and commissioning services from 800 providers and 425 residential homes.
The Conservatives put forward a total package of £18.8m in additional investment – both in the main budget and an on-the-day amendment, which saw the group make extra commitments after late confirmation of exactly how much cash it would have available to spend.
Amongst the plans, the budget for gully cleaning will double to £680m, there will be £2m to allow for more flexibility in identifying potholes for repair and a £5m pot created to provide further support to projects that will form the basis of bids to the government’s Levelling Up Fund.
Meanwhile, Labour brought forward proposals totalling around £35m, including a £5m boost to road repairs, free 12-month membership to local authority sports and swimming facilities for disabled residents and 11-to-16 years olds and a £20m fund to kickstart long-proposed transport projects like the reopening of the Poulton to Fleetwood railway line.
Labour county councillor John Fillis, who delivered the party’s alternative budget, said that there were some similarities with the Tory plans – and appealed to the ruling group to consider Labour’s initiatives in the months to come, even if they were unable to vote for them en masse as part of the budget.
“I constantly hear when I go [out] on the doorstep…’Why don’t you all work together?’” he said.
However, most of Labour’s proposals received a lukewarm reception from the Conservatives – including the call to invest in the money to get a raft of rail initiatives out of the sidings.
Fleetwood East member and Labour deputy group leader Lorraine Beavers said of her home area that Lancashire should “hang its head in shame that a once prosperous town is today registered as being in the bottom 10 percent for education, employment, income and skills across the country”.
“Connectivity will bring jobs and investment and hope to my town,” County Cllr Beavers added, bemoaning the fact that the quickest route from Fleetwood to Preston on public transport was a 90-minute bus journey.
However, cabinet member for economic development and growth, Aidy Riggott, said that work on the party’s “wishlist” of projects was already underway – and was in need of conversations, not cash.
“It’s actually [about] sitting down with people and building a long-term strategic partnership and finding a way through [to] unlock some of these [schemes].,” County Cllr Riggott said,
Labour group leader Azhar Ali claimed that when ideas are brought forward by the opposition “however useful they are and however good they are, the answer is always going to be no, because you know better”, he said.
County Cllr Ali also condemned what he said was the £600m lost from Lancashire County Council’s budget since austerity began in 2010.
Meanwhile, his Labour colleague Lizzi Collinge called on the authority to do more to achieve its stated ambition of making the county carbon neutral by 2030, stating that ”ever so quietly [the target keeps] going back to 2050 in official documentation – that’s simply not good enough”.
“If you think the pandemic was an emergency, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” she warned, urging the formation of a carbon neutral scrutiny committee.
Cabinet member for environment and climate change Shaun Turner said that a climate summit for all of the county’s councils next month would set out Lancashire’s green goals.
Fellow Conservative cabinet members lined up to extol the virtues of the additional spending in their own portfolios, with Peter Buckley – responsible for community and cultural services – hailing extra cash for libraries and their “positive impact…to enrich people’s lives and everyday”.
Labour’s Nikki Hennessy backed a call for a Lancashire Road Safety Partnership-funded initiative to enforce the 20mph limit introduced on Lancashire residential streets a decade ago, which she currency said there was “no way to police”
Preston West member John Potter, delivering the Liberal Democrat group alternative budget, said that his party would limit the council tax rise this year to 1.99 percent – and not take up the option of the additional two percent to be levied on social care.
He told the meeting that some residents were on the “edge of desperation” because of the pressure on household budgets and called on the government to provide places like Lancashire with the money they needed to deliver services rather than “taking the knees out” of local authorities.
The Lib Dems also proposed a £26m investment in a new school for the North West Preston masterplan area – where 5,500 will have been built over the two decades to the mid-2030s – if the promised cash for such a facility from the City Deal does not emerge within the year.
“There is so much housing [that] we need new roads …and there is so much housing, we’re getting a new train station. But we are now, no way, getting a new school – because the City Deal finances are…running out of money.
“We are the safety net for those children – if no-one else is going to build it then we have to,” County Cllr Potter added.
Under the masterplan, agreed back in 2017, it was suggested that three schools would be needed to cope with the influx of new residents in that part of Preston – two primary and one secondary. Although land has been earmarked within sites where housing is to be built, the proposed school plots are just indicative – and not a brick has yet been laid to create the facilities.
Cabinet member for education and skills Jayne Rear said that the council “frequently” monitored demand for places – and that for primary schools, it was currently falling in Preston West due to a “significant drop in birth rate and a slowdown in housing delivery”. She said that the current forecast for this spring is that there are tens of spare places in every year group
County Cllr Rear added that the authority was “working on a longer-term programme” to ensure sufficient secondary school capacity in North West Preston, in addition to extra places which are already being provided this year and next.
Under government rules, all new schools have to be academies, which sit outside of local authority control once they are operational.
Elsewhere, Green Party group leader Gina Dowding called for the doubling of the recently -reintroduced discretionary grant available to county councillors to support local groups – from £2,000 to £4,000 per year.
“It’s a quick and easy way to really reach into our communities. I have hardly done any publicity whatsoever [of their availability] and I’m inundated with calls,” County Cllr Dowding said,
Lancashire County Council’s forecast deficit in 2024/25 currently stands at £41m – but the £211m in reserves currently held by the authority are deemed sufficient to cover funding gaps at least up until that point. However, the authority has committed to identifying further savings – and delivering those already pencilled in – in order to put County Hall onto a sustainable financial footing.
Conservative deputy council leader Alan Vincent - who is also the cabinet member for resources - told the budget meeting that the only reason that there was cash available for opposition parties to make spending pledges was “because we’ve been in charge of the money since 2017”.
This year’s council tax increase will be made up of a 1.99 percent rise which can be spent on all council services – and is the largest amount by which local authorities are allowed to increase council tax without a referendum – and a two percent uplift which is protected for adult social care.
The increase in adult social care “precept”, as it is known, has been set by the government this year at a maximum of one percent, but councils are also allowed to levy any part of the rise which they did not deploy last year.
YOUTH SERVICES SPAT
County Hall's budget debate has historically been a testy affair, but this year's deliberations - although lengthy, at five-and-a-half hours - were better tempered than some in recent memory.
However, there were still sparks in some of the exchanges - not least over youth services and the county council's role in providing them.
Speaking to one of the Liberal Democrat budget proposals to fund six new youth worker posts, County Cllr John Potter said that the Tories had previously "made massive cuts to [Lancashire's] youth offending teams".
He added: "You were warned at the time that making those cuts [would] save you pennies now, but cost pounds later. If anyone is not seeing the growth in antisocial behaviour in their area, you have probably got your head in the sand."
However, the cabinet member for children and families, Cosima Towneley, said that the Conservatives at County Hall took the issue "extremely seriously" and were currently advertising for three youth worker vacancies.
But she told the Lib Dem: "I think you are slightly under a misapprehension. We are there for the most vulnerable, for families and children in crisis - we are not there to simply run football clubs.
"We do targeted intervention - that is the role of the state. For many other things, it is the role of the parent."
The Labour former county councillor leader Jennifer Mein told the meeting she was "absolutely shocked" by County Cl;r Towneley's comment.
"It didn't used to be that way in this authority - it didn't used to be that way in most authorities, However, since the Conservatives came to government in 2010, 70 percent of youth services have been cut - that's almost £1bn which has been [taken] out of youth services.
"It's just appalling to think that the cabinet member for children does not have any responsibility towards young people between the ages of 14 and 24 [in terms of] providing services for them," County Cllr Mein added.
Each party on the authority set out its own suggested amendments to the overall budget, with money drawn either from day-to-day revenue spending or the capital account, as indicated. All items cover the financial year 2022/23 only unless stated otherwise.
The following additions to the budget proposed by the ruling group were voted through:
***Create a Lancashire Levelling Up Investment Fund from which district councils will be invited to bid for money that will further support projects seeking to secure backing from the government’s nationwide Levelling Up Fund. £5m*
***Highways responsive maintenance - to enable localised clusters of potholes to be filled in even when some do not meet the usual severity criteria for repair. £2m*
***Expand the reach of the reablement service to help people live safely and independently at home for longer - and to get back home from a hospital stay sooner. £500K
***Funding for a new special education needs and disabilities (SEND) unit within a mainstream school in the county. £400K
***Conservation area enhancements scheme - to fund environmentally-sensitive repairs/upgrades to the public realm, match-funded by district councils. £300K*
***Increase support for active travel schemes, with a particular focus on the mental and physical health benefits. £100K
***Additional welfare support - including a food grant scheme from which local voluntary sector and faith groups working to tackle food insecurity can bid for up to £1,000. Also, a domestic fuel support support and advice scheme. £100K
***New “Best Start in Life” scheme to improve early years skills. £100K
***Tackling loneliness and social isolation by supporting community groups with that aim. £100K
***Local nature and biodiversity grant scheme - fund into which local groups and parish councils can bid. £58K
***£500 top-up to county councillor community grants to fund local platinum jubilee events, such as street parties. £42K
The main budget, which was also approved, included additional funding of:
***£5m to improve the lives of families and children, including via early years support and developing family hubs.
***£1.3m to maintain residential care homes and day services.
***£500K for signing and lining roads.
***£500K to match fund culture and sports initiatives.
***£470K on public realm work.
***£340K for reactive gully clearing and annual targeting of “hot spots”.
***£300K for new library books and e-books.
***£300K on staff to assist residents.
***£110K on shared lives service.
***£95K on rehabilitation service for the visually impaired.
The opposition’s alternative budget was voted down. It included the following proposals:
***Support sustainable, carbon-reducing transport connections by developing and promoting projects such as re-establishing rail links between Poulton and Fleetwood, Colne and Skipton (with electrification through to Preston) and Rawtenstall and Manchester; reopening Midge Hall and Coppull railway stations; reinstating the “Burscough curves”; and opening a Skelmersdale rail link and station. £20m*
***Pothole repair provision (in addition to government grant). £5m*
***Repair pedestrian and cycling surfaces using recycled material (in addition to government grant). £5m*
***Provide 12 months’ membership to local authority sports and swimming facilities for all disabled residents and 11-to-16 years olds. £1.2m
***Highways and structural fund for parish and town councils to bid for up to £50K to be match-funded via external grants. £1m*
***Invest in health improvement services, including those aimed at smoking, obesity and drug and alcohol addiction. £500K
***Provide temporary classes to cope with the current shortfall in places. £500K*
***Promote night-time and cultural economy in the wake of the pandemic. £300K
***Review highways masterplans with a focus on walking and cycling. £200K
***Open a welfare rights support helpline to provide advice amidst rising cost of living. £200K
***Develop and part-fund a business bank for small and medium-sized enterprises - possibly a “Lancashire Mutual”, based in Preston. £200K
***Provide home computers and internet access for schoolchildren whose families cannot afford the cost. £200K
***Trades union facility time to support staff in new normal conditions of service. £150K
***Increase road sweeping in areas of flooding to prevent gully blockage. £120K
***Launch a “Lancashire Good Employment Charter” to enable businesses to attract the best employees by promoting good practice. £100K
***Increase street lighting in areas of crime and disorder, equally splitting the cost with the police. £100K
***Create a Lancashire Care Home Charter to prevent neglect and premature deaths from infection. £100K
***Evaluation of Transport for the North policy in relation to Lancashire’s needs. £100K
***Part-fund a public transport “smart ticketing” system. £100K
***Increase signs and lines on highways. £100K
***Create carbon-neutral biodiversity fund for parish and town councils to bid for up to £2,000. £100K*
***Work with Royal Mail to provide staff training in “isolation awareness” to identify vulnerable people in the community. £100K
***Support local groups in delivering community speed watch initiatives - including deployment of speed indicator devices and training in use of speed guns, generating warning letters to be sent to drivers exceeding the limit. Funded by Lancashire Road Safety Partnership
***Establish a 2030 carbon neutral scrutiny committee to make recommendations to reduce the council’s carbon footprint. Funded from existing committees budget
The Lib Dem amendment was voted down:
***New high school in North West Preston if no funding streams become available from City Deal in the next 12 months. £26m*
***Increase council tax by 1.99 percent rather than 3.99 percent. £11m (recurrent cost)
***More flexible streetlight dimming in areas where there are safety concerns. £500K (ongoing)
***Four new gully wagons, to operate and maintain, £480K (plus £600K* capital costs, maintenance costs ongoing).
***Twelve parking enforcement officers - one in every district. £350K (ongoing)
***Six extra, permanent youth workers and a new senior youth worker. £270K (ongoing)
***Additional planning officer to assist the flood risk team. £43K (ongoing)
The Green Party amendment was voted down:
***Increase budget for local member grants from £2,000 to £4,000 per county councillor for distribution to community groups in the areas that they represent. £168K
***Invest in additional bus services and improved technology on routes. £1.4m
***Invest in cycling in walking schemes and infrastructure.. £500K*
*denotes capital spending
THE BIG NUMBERS
£948m - total Lancashire County Council budget (2022/23)
£419m - adult services
£171m - children’s social care
£75m - highways and transport
After councillors approved a 3.99 percent increase from April, Lancashire County Council’s share of the council tax bill in all districts except Blackpool and Blackburn will be:
Band A - £1,009.52 (up £38.73)
Band B - £1,177,78 (up £45.19)
Band C - £1,346.03 (up £51.64)
Band D - £1,514.29 (up £58.10)
Band E - £1,850.80 (up £71.01)
Band F - £2,187.32 (up £83.93)
Band G - £2,523.82 (up £96.84)
Band H - £3.028.58 (up £116.20)
*The above figures do not include the council tax charged by district and parish or town councils, nor the police and fire services.