The report of the Director – Finance and Corporate Services is attached.
The Mayor advised that she had been asked as Chairman of this meeting to consider extending the time period for proposing the 2023/24 Budget and Financial Strategy to 15 minutes, and to allow 7 ½ minutes for Group Leaders responding. The Mayor confirmed that she was happy to approve the request.
The Leader and Portfolio Holder for Strategic and Borough-wide Leadership, Councillor Robinson presented the report of the Director – Finance and Corporate Services outlining the Council’s Financial Strategy and Budget for 2023/24.
The Leader stated that this budget had been carefully crafted to represent the diversity of all Rushcliffe’s residents and businesses, and had been developed during very difficult times, with war in Europe, associated high levels of inflation, economic downturn, and rising prices, which affected everyone. Council was reminded that this budget had not been built in isolation, rather it had been built on many successfully years of prudent management by this authority.
The Leader referred to the support being offered to local businesses, including the proposal to freeze car parking charges, with the authority already having some of the lowest charges in the county. Reference was made to the support being given to the Development Corporation, which would be bringing new employment and green technology to Rushcliffe, and it was hoped that some very significant plans shared this week with Cabinet would soon be made public. Investment was also being made in the Freeport, with significant announcements due in the next week, and the Leader referred to the significance of the HS2 hub scheduled to come into Rushcliffe. It was noted that the significant Business Rate relief was helping local businesses, and that the Council was also offering some businesses rent free periods and rent reviews, which reflected their needs. The Leader advised that 10 out of the 12 units at the new Bingham Enterprise Centre had already been let, which highlighted how well the Council was fulfilling that market.
With regards to supporting the vulnerable and disadvantaged, the Leader confirmed that £3.7m had been invested in disabled facilities across the Borough, with a further £325k to Hound Lodge, which supported families made unintentionally homeless. £4.7m had been allocated for social housing, and Council was reminded that on the larger sites, 30% affordable homes was the target, and such significant funds helped the Borough to deliver more social housing than any other district in Nottinghamshire.
The Leader referred to the £1m allocated to build a gypsy and traveller site, which would allow the Council to prevent unauthorised encampments around the Borough, which affected communities.
In respect of supporting local communities, £2.7m was being invested at Cotgrave and Keyworth leisure centres, on the back of the successful opening of the new leisure centre at Bingham, with a new community hall planned for Edwalton. Council was advised that the premium on empty properties would be reduced from two to one year to help incentive housing use. The Leader confirmed that £2m would be invested in new waste vehicles to ensure the provision of the best recycling service in the county. £1.1m would be invested in a new website, which given the importance of online communication and information would prove vital going forward. £4m would be allocated for a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) for a site at Flintham, which had proved to be extremely troublesome, blighting communities, and therefore this was a necessary step, and once sold the revenue would be returned. The Leader highlighted that over £23m had been allocated to the Capital Budget, whilst still allowing reserves of £10m over five years.
In respect of income, the Leader advised that the Council had benefitted from many years of successful investment in its commercial estates, generating nearly £2m in rent, whilst providing great job opportunities, and the continued careful management of those investments was commended. The Leader stated that the Council was now mostly self-sufficient, which again was a testament to the Council’s Transformation projects. A substantial rise in costs was anticipated, with many inflationary pressures, and to ensure value for money some savings had been proposed, including a reduction to the Councillors’ Community Support Scheme from £1000 to £500, as it often remained unspent. The Leader also stated that the YouNG Project was no longer providing value for money, and that support would be reduced.
The Leader reiterated that this was a budget for everyone, with one of the best examples of this being the proposal to freeze Rushcliffe’s element of the Council Tax for Bands A to D by using both Council money and Government grants, with Bands E to H also only seeing an average increase of 9pence per week. Council was reminded that this would again ensure that Rushcliffe had the lowest Council Tax in the county, whilst still leading the way in service provision, and what an incredible testament that was to the administration. The Leader was pleased to confirm that the Council would remain debt free, and able to focus on providing essential frontline services.
The Leader stated that this budget was ambitious, balanced, and inclusive. It was ambitious, as the Council had continued to invest in large projects, spending over £30m, with a further £23m going into the Capital Budget for future investment. The Leader stated that the Freeport, Development Corporation and HS2 would bring thousands of jobs and prosperity to this area.
The budget was balanced, with reserves increasing to £10m, to provide security against unforeseen problems, various charges were being frozen, whilst only having a small deficit over the five years, which would be easily fundable. The budget was inclusive, with the Council Tax freeze focusing on those who needed it most, whilst creating the least administration. There would be investment in social housing, in Hound Lodge and in leisure facilities, which would provide income and essential sporting provision for young people.
In conclusion, the Leader thanked the Director – Finance and Corporate Services and his team for preparing an incredibly difficult budget in such challenging times, with many options explored, and Councillors were thanked for attending the Budget Workshops, which highlighted cross-party collaboration. The budget had been scrutinised by the Governance Scrutiny Group and Cabinet and the Leader was proud that this budget would provide the support that residents deserved.
Councillor Moore seconded the recommendation and reserved the right to speak.
Councillor J Walker referred to the previous four years of limited options for local authorities in balancing their budgets and that it was difficult to make a significant impact to real people as budgets were already predetermined. Councillor Walker agreed that Rushcliffe was a great place to live and stated that the Council had balanced its budget in part by “farming out” services, which other Councils had kept in house, and without having key expenses on services such as adult care, the Council had weathered the economic storm. As well as the good budgeting that had taken place, Councillor Walker stated that the Council had been able to balance its budget through the sale of significant expanses of Greenbelt, and the associated influx of houses had brought New Homes Bonus revenue, whilst increasing its tax base, and if a Council such as Rushcliffe could not balance its budget, then no Council could. Councillor Walker acknowledged that this was partly due to prudence; however, it was also down to good fortune, with an affluent Borough, significant areas of land to sell for housing and only a small number of services to fund. Council was advised that it should not be complacent and should lose this self-congratulatory attitude, and rather be grateful for having such favourable circumstances, to ensure that it did not fall victim to the fate that other authorities had. Councillor Walker stated that the Council Tax freeze was in fact a hidden rise, and next year it would be double, as this hidden rise had been funded by the Government and this Council. Councillor Walker concluded by advising that the Labour Group would abstain from voting on this budget and gave particular thanks to the Director – Finance and Corporate Services and the Service Manager – Finance for their support.
Councillor Jones thanked officers for their hard work and agreed in general that the Capital Programme was balanced; however, whilst reference was often made by the majority group to Rushcliffe having the lowest Council Tax in the county, Councillor Jones stated that was referred to without explanation or qualification of the reasons why. The Council saved expenditure by not tending common areas on new estates, with residents paying management companies instead, and Councillor Jones stated that this was a policy choice. Significant housing development had resulted in increased Council Tax revenue of 2% per annum and Council was reminded that Rushcliffe had many more properties at a higher rateable value than other councils in the county, which provided much higher income, and that should be recognised. Councillor Jones advised that Rushcliffe also had more parish and town councils and did not have to provide as many services. Councillor Jones supported the proposal to reduce the time for imposing the premium on empty properties and noted the Government grant and Council funds being used to freeze Council Tax for Bands A to D; however, whilst that was popular now, it would not be so next year, when payments would be doubled. The uncertain economic climate was appreciated, including increased costs, which were necessary, and Councillor Jones agreed that the principles of the General Fund balance were clear and safe, and it was pleasing that there was no external borrowing, although the predicted fall in total reserves was not good. Councillor Jones welcomed the reduction in the Community Support Scheme to £500 per Councillor and to make the charge for any additional green bin the same as the first. Reference was made to the West Bridgford Special Expenses, and Councillor Jones reminded Council that last year the Liberal Democrat Group had opposed the offloading of the costs of Rushcliffe wide events onto the West Bridgford Special Expenses budget, and this was still unsatisfactory. Councillor Jones stated that the Council had received £15m for land at Sharphill, with a further £5m to come, and although there were plans to spend £500k on a community hall at Sharphill Country Park, the rest had been put into the General Fund, rather than for local facilities in West Bridgford. Reference was made to the Capital Building Programme, and that the £4.7m allocated for social housing was less than the over £5m allocated last year, and Councillor Jones asked for an update and how this would translate into number of dwellings and that its implementation be prioritised. In conclusion, Councillor Jones stated that he fully supported the development of a gypsy and traveller site and agreed that it was critical that the Council acted quickly to stop random applications.
Councillor R Mallender reiterated the thanks given to officers for their hard work and also gave thanks for the opportunity for all Councillors to attend the Budget Workshops, as it was very useful for all Councillors to understand those very complex financial matters. Councillor Mallender stated that there was much to be commended in this budget, including the opportunities for de-carbonisation highlighted in a number of projects, that the £810k for Climate Change action remained, although it was uncertain why it referred to zero expenditure for that, when money was supposed to be spent to make the required changes to move towards the Council being net zero by 2030. Councillor Mallender advised that the Green Group was not happy with the freeze of car parking charges, and whilst understanding the reasoning behind it, stated that it would be better to work with other authorities to improve public transport. Councillor Mallender also welcomed the change to the Empty Homes Premium. In conclusion, Councillor Mallender advised that he was happy to note that the Council was not knowingly investing in businesses, whose activities would pose a risk of serious harm; however, some of the businesses that the Council invested through were not so clear and it was important that the Council checked to see that those businesses were doing the same.
Councillor Thomas agreed with Councillor Jones that Rushcliffe’s demographics, housing mix and general affluence influenced its ranking in the Council Tax league tables, quoted the statement in the report that “The overriding Rushcliffe principle is that the Council aims to stay in the lower quartile for Council Tax” and asked if that should override everything else. Councillor Thomas referred to the complexity of the budgeting process and the skill of officers in navigating it when there were so many external uncertainties that could affect it, and it was noted that no external borrowing was expected to be necessary in the medium term. The Leake Independent Group supported the proposals for use of the Council Tax Support Fund plus additional Council provision to ensure that Bands A to D received no increase in the Rushcliffe portion of their Council Tax and hoped that the principle would be replicated in future years. However, given the County Council, Police, and Fire Authority increases, Councillor Thomas stated that this would sadly be a drop in the ocean compared to the overall increases in people’s bills. In respect of the Empty Homes Premium, Councillor Thomas was pleased to see that a scrutiny item was now scheduled to look in more detail at the impacts of using differential Council Tax rates to incentivize bringing housing into use, which would cover all types of empty homes. Councillor Thomas noted the availability of £4.5m to provide support to Registered Housing providers and that options for spending this were to be assessed, although she considered this to be another pot where the Council held money that was difficult to spend and asked if this could come to scrutiny to get some urgency behind the development of those plans. Councillor Thomas referred to recycling and concluded by advising that there were many gaps in the Council’s recycling provision, and it should be looking at ways to implement for instance food waste recycling.
Councillor Butler welcomed the budget, referred to the previous reference to adult social care and clarified that no district or borough councils were responsible for that provision. Councillor Butler reminded Councillors that it was a legal duty for the Council to set a budget and to abstain would be inappropriate. Reference was made to the challenges being faced by all local authorities, whilst trying to deliver services and Councillor Butler advised that Rushcliffe must be doing something right, as so many people wanted to live in the Borough. This positive budget was welcomed, the Council was debt free, and was investing throughout the Borough, whilst freezing Council Tax for Bands A to D and Councillor Butler thanked all those involved, included Councillors who had attended the Budget Workshops.
Councillor Clarke reiterated previous comments that Rushcliffe was a great place to live and stated that Rushcliffe had one of the most enviable financial status in the country. Councillor Clarke noted comments made about building on the Greenbelt, and income generated from the NHB; however, he reminded Council that new homes also required services, which increased costs and stated that Rushcliffe had built 9,000 house to help Nottingham City Council. Councillor Clarke stated that this budget was about providing value for money and good financial management. Council was advised that recycling food waste would be addressed in the future, following the completion of the Environment Bill. Councillor Clarke stated that everyone should be proud of this excellent budget and this Council.
Councillor Barney referred to the difficult decisions being faced by all local authorities and stated that this Council should celebrate that it had a balanced budget and did not have to face making cuts to frontline services.
Councillor S Mallender asked if the new waste vehicles would have the capacity to collect both food waste and a separated doorstep glass collection and in respect of the various playground refurbishments, sought assurance that they would include inclusive play equipment, as it had been mentioned that disabled facilities in Rushcliffe were not as good as in the City, with the exception of Rushcliffe Country Park. Councillor Mallender commended the proposal for the gypsy and traveller site and that the 30% affordable housing allocation would continue.
Councillor Gowland advised that Nottingham City Council was now trialling food waste collection. Councillor Gowland stated that the Council no longer supported public spaces, nor owned its own housing and felt that it was a pity that the Council had no control over this. Rushcliffe was very fortunate to benefit from having a large Council Tax base, which allowed it to be in such a positive position. Councillor Gowland confirmed that the Labour Group had participated positively in the Budget Workshops and been happy to put ideas forward.
Councillor Simms agreed that this was an excellent budget, with the Council run prudently, and after years of seeing first hand repeated budget cuts at other authorities, it was welcomed that this Council would not have to cut budgets or jobs, whilst providing important services, and no Councillors should abstain from voting.
Councillor Inglis referred to the capital investment planned for the Keyworth leisure centre, which showed the commitment to maintain that facility and was welcomed by local residents. In respect of the new waste vehicles, Councillor Inglis confirmed that three trucks had already been replaced, as part of the previous capital budget. In respect of future investment, Councillor Inglis advised that currently electric vehicles were not compatible; however, that would continue to be looked into as the Council moved to being zero carbon by 2030. In respect of recycling going forward, Councillor Inglis stated that all Council in Nottinghamshire were working collaboratively and would be ready once the Environmental Bill was completed.
Councillor Bansal thanked the Director – Finance and Corporate Services and his team for their hard work, given the considerable work required to produce a budget. Reference was made to the allocation of £1.1m for a new website and Councillor Bansal questioned that expenditure.
Councillor Moore stated that he was very proud of this Council’s achievements, which included all Councillors, and he emphasised that the Council created and generated its own good fortune. Councillor Moore referred to previous comments that the freeze in Council Tax could be seen as a hidden rise; however, next year was unknown, as no budget had been set, and this year the Council was trying to help residents during the cost of living crisis. Councillor Moore stated that it would be inappropriate to expect residents in outlying villages to pay for the excellent events held in West Bridgford and that was quite correctly covered by the West Bridgford Special Expenses. Council was reminded that holding Budget Workshops was not required; however, this administration wanted budget setting to be an inclusive process and that was why it was disappointing to note that some Councillors would be abstaining, when a budget had to be set by law. Councillor Moore also referred to the importance of believing in value for money, which this Council did. Councillor Moore confirmed that funds were being spent on disabled adaptations, and in respect of climate change, the Council was fortunate to have received £1.2m from external funds, which was being used on the leisure centres, with funds used in East Leake to insulate houses, and it was hoped that the climate change budget would be kept going forward.
The Leader clarified that the new website would cost £80k, as part of the £1.1m allocated for IT informational systems and technology enhancements. The Leader asked if he should apologise for Rushcliffe being one of the best run councils in the country, for freezing Council Tax, whilst improving services and facilities and that people wanted to live in the Borough. The Leader was disappointed that no reference had been made by the opposition to the significant job creation that would be taking place in the Borough with the Freeport, Development Corporation and HS2, and that the increased Council Tax revenue from the additional housing would also ensure more jobs, houses, and prosperity for the Borough. The Leader stated that the most important things to help this country out of the current economic difficulties were growth and prosperity and that he had been told first-hand how much other authorities envied Rushcliffe and its strong financial situation. In conclusion, the Leader advised that this Council made very good decisions to invest in its residents and businesses and create jobs and this budget exemplified that.
In accordance with the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2014, a recorded vote was taken for this item as follows:
FOR: Councillors R Adair, M Barney, K Beardsall, A Brennan, R Butler, N Clarke, J Cottee, G Dickman, R Inglis, Mrs C Jeffreys, R Jones, G Moore, A Phillips, V Price, F Purdue-Horan, S Robinson, K Shaw, D Simms, Mrs M Stockwood, C Thomas, R Upton, R Walker, L Way, D Wheeler, J Wheeler and G Williams
ABSTENTION: Councillors B Bansal, N Begum, T Combellack, M Gaunt, P Gowland, B Gray, L Howitt, R Mallender, S Mallender, D Mason, J Murray and J Walker
It was RESOLVED that: