Cornwall Council has written to the Duchy’s six Conservative MPs asking for fairer financial support for the county as it faces cuts to services and a proposed maximum 4.99 per cent council tax rise for the second year running.
Discussing tough draft budget proposals at a meeting of the council’s Conservative cabinet, deputy leader Cllr David Harris made it clear that funding from central government wasn’t fair and “it is unreasonable”. Council leader Cllr Linda Taylor added that government funding for children in Cornwall was particularly unfair compared to other parts of the country.
Cllr Barbara Ellenbroek, portfolio holder for children and families, urged everybody present at the meeting at New County Hall / Lys Kernow in Truro, or watching online, to lobby their MP to say “this is not good enough”. She said Cornwall Council was in a group of 40 local authorities who get less than average funding for children “and it is absolutely appalling that out children seem to be less deserving of support”.
The cabinet members’ comments came as they approved a recommendation for draft budget proposals for 2024/25, which will see the council having to make savings of £29-million, which will inevitably lead to the cutting or even stopping of some services.
By the end of the first quarter of this financial year, the council forecasts an overspend of £7.9-million. The main areas of overspend continue to be in home to school transport (£5-million), housing temporary/emergency accommodation (£6.7-million) and housing benefits (£1.7-million). These are partly offset by a currently unused £5-million contingency budget held for inflationary pressures.
Cllr Harris, who is also portfolio holder for resources, made it clear that although the council is operating in the context of a “tumultuous economic climate”, Cornwall Council was much better placed financially than many other local authorities, namechecking Birmingham City Council which was, in effect, declared bankrupt last week.
Cllr Harris said: “This council, like many others in the country, continues to face financial pressures that need to be addressed. This is despite the fact that difficult decisions have already been taken in previous financial years. Many other authorities are in fact facing even greater financial pressures with the Local Government Association identifying that councils in England face a funding gap of almost £5-billion to 2026 just to keep services standing still.
“It seems that almost every day there are new headlines about local authorities whose finances are in a perilous state, with a number of Section 114 notices (ensuring councils can only spend money on statutory services) having recently been issued by local authorities, including the largest council in Europe, namely Birmingham only last week.
“Our finances are in a decent state as a result of early planning, sound management and prudential budgeting. Our general fund reserve is at the level it is expected to be, so, to the extent possible, I have no concerns about our finances.”
He added that one of the concerns aimed at Birmingham was an overspend on IT. He said Cornwall Council’s ‘digital futures’ strategy is subject to an annual progress report underpinned by a robust assurance programme. “In other words, it is big numbers but we have our eyes on it.”
Cllr Harris noted that the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill was progressing at “an incredibly slow pace” through Parliament. If approved it would mean Cornwall Council receiving a financial boost by being able to claim more council tax on second homes and empty holiday homes.
“We have not yet factored any additional resources from any council tax premiums on second and empty homes (into the draft financial proposals). If the bill received royal assent before the end of the current financial year then the earliest the premium can be levied will be from April 2025,” he said.
The deputy leader added: “We have written, again, in fairly stark terms to our MPs asking them to make the strongest representations in relation to fairer funding for Cornwall. We have been going on, and others before us as well, in relation to fairer funding for many years. Cornwall on any relevant comparison is not treated fairly and it is unreasonable. However, we cannot stipulate on what we might get – I have my own view and it’s not good – so our current budget assumptions have to include a rise in council tax of 4.99%.
“This is not a proposal that has been taken easily. We are fully aware of the impact that increasing council tax has on our residents particularly as a cost of living crisis continues to impact on lives and livelihoods.”
The meeting heard that a five per cent increase on car parking charges in Cornwall, which rose dramatically this year, has been proposed as part of next year’s budget. Cllr Harris said the cabinet would listen to the public’s concerns as “I appreciate car parking is a difficult, vexed and controversial subject”.
It is the earliest a draft budget has been produced by Cornwall Council, allowing members to scrutinise the proposals in depth before a final budget plan is approved next February.