West Norfolk Council chief ‘worried’ by budget squeeze

King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council Chief Excutive Ray Harding. ANL-140529-082536001
King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council Chief Excutive Ray Harding. ANL-140529-082536001
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Councillors in West Norfolk have been warned they will face more “very difficult decisions” to find millions of pounds in budgetary savings over the next few years.

The grim message was delivered as a committee considered the borough’s budget for the forthcoming financial year at a meeting on Tuesday.

Documents published last week revealed plans for a 0.8 per cent rise in the borough’s portion of council tax during the forthcoming financial year.

That will add around 90p to the annual bill for an average band D property.

The plan also includes increases in car parking charges, funeral and burial fees and many other services.

But, despite those measures, the authority says it will still have to find at least £2.7 million of additional savings over the next four years.

And, during last night’s resources and performance panel meeting, the council’s chief executive, Ray Harding, admitted he was worried about the situation.

He said: “I’ve never been worried about budgetary positions for the council before but there are a lot of risks this time which means we need to start straightaway making savings and means you, as members, are going to have to make some very difficult decisions.”

The council says almost £8 million has been saved on the cost of providing its services since 2009, the equivalent of nearly half the planned budget for the 2016-17 financial year.

But Mr Harding admitted: “It’s going to be much, much harder than last time.”

The committee was told that the revenue support grant the council currently receives from central government will be slashed from around £3.9 million this year to just £614,000 in 2019-20.

Projections for the payment of new home bonuses for housebuilding are also down from a peak of around £3.2 million to £1.4 million over the same period.

And members were told that the council may have to find a £2.5 million business rates rebate for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital trust if a group action calling for hospital-based foundation trusts to be given charitable trust status succeeds.

If the request is granted, such organisations would be entitled to an 80 per cent business rates rebate, equating to around £450,000 in the case of the QEH.

Mr Harding said the council would still have to find more than £2 million in savings, even if it chose to raise council tax by the maximum of £5 a year that it is entitled to do under new government rules.

Authorities do have the option of agreeing a four-year settlement with the government, but Mr Harding said he was concerned that such an agreement would not hold if the economic outlook worsened.

He added: “There is a lot to be worried about.”

Labour group leader and panel member John Collop said he did not want to see council tax raised sharply, but questioned whether further savings could realistically be found.

He said: “There must come a point where we say, ‘Hang on, there isn’t anything left.’”

But the committee’s chairman, Harry Humphrey, said services coming in under budget showed officers understood the challenges facing them.

He added: “The public are aware, I think, of the dire constraints we’re under. I think it’s vital that we manage expectations because we’re in a very difficult position.”

Council leader Nick Daubney said the financial plan contained lower council tax rises than previously estimated, despite proposals to impose a 1.9 per cent rise in each of the three years after 2016-17.

He said: “It’s going to be hard and I don’t think any of us underestimate that.

“This is a good council. I’m very, very proud of this council and what it delivers and I have every confidence working with officers that we can continue to deliver on this.”

The committee called for the authority’s cabinet, which will examine the budget itself next week, to look at ways of consulting the public on the future make-up of services.