Agenda item

2024/25 Budget and Financial Strategy

The report of the Director – Finance and Corporate Services is attached.


The Leader and Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Strategic and Borough-wide Leadership, Councillor Clarke presented the report of the Director – Finance and Corporate Services outlining the Council’s Budget and Financial Strategy for 2024/25.


The Leader informed Council that he had great pleasure in presenting the Budget and Financial Strategy for 2024/25 and thanked the Director of Finance and Corporate Services and the Finance Team for their hard work throughout the last year.  He stated that the financial position of the Council was strong and that the budget presented was legal, balanced and valid.  The Leader recognised that times remained challenging and went on to say that several councils nationally had already issued s114 notices, with many more warning that significant change was needed to avoid such a position.


The Leader advised Council that the budget presented resourced the delivery of the new Corporate Strategy as well as the statutory and discretionary services residents in the Borough valued, supported businesses and climate reduction projects as well as financing improvements to a number of leisure centres and play areas.  Despite this, Council Tax remained in the lowest quartile nationally presenting excellent value for money, and where increases in specific fees and charges had been made that was to directly cover increases in costs or to develop services. The Leader stated that it was a common misconception that Rushcliffe was a wealthy Borough with no social deprivation and informed Council of additional Government funding received recently to help tackle a growing homelessness problem in the Borough. 


The Leader informed Council that he had been lobbying the Government for a multi-year settlement, as had the Local Government Association (LGA) and the District Councils’ Network, to provide greater certainty and stability.  Efforts had also been extended to decide the future of the New Homes Bonus and complete the Fairer Funding Review; however, the Council had to work with what it currently had.


The Leader advised that external borrowing would only be contemplated when absolutely necessary, given the associated interest payments.  He referenced Rushcliffe Oaks, Bingham Arena and the Enterprise Centre as worthwhile investments the Council had recently made to benefit residentsand stated that this growth was funded through the Council’s prudent management of its income and reserves. It was noted that the budget presented for approval contained a Capital Investment portfolio worth £24.8m over the next five years.


In summing up the Leader informed Council of an additional £128k received from central Government recently, of which £100k had been allocated for climate change activities and £28k for additional support for victims of the recent flooding.  There was also a new requirement to produce a Productivity Plan that would be based on the Council’s existing Transformation and Efficiency Programme. The Leader went on to conclude that the budget as presented was robust, deliverable and affordable, despite the challenging environment in which the Council was operating and recommended all Councillors to vote for its adoption.


Councillor Virdi seconded the recommendation and reserved the right to speak.


Councillor J Walker thanked officers for their support in producing this viable, alternative budget and referred to the legal requirement for local authorities to produce a balanced budget, set around the needs of its residents. However, political choices and ideological narratives showed the priorities and values of an organisation, and putting funds into Climate Change Reserves, although laudable was an example of that, as Councillor Walker considered that whilst this showed an awareness of the collective challenges, it failed to take direct action, and she questioned how best the money could be spent to benefit the world now and future residents. 


Councillor Walker referred to the amendment, which was suggesting two simple and fully costed changes to the budget, firstly by investigating the possibility of building council housing and secondly to try and reduce the impact of cuts to the Disabled Facilities Grants (DFG). Council was reminded that this amendment was not proposing any borrowing, rather, it was asking Councillors to start thinking about having a small amount of council owned council housing. Councillor Walker advised that Rushcliffe was sixth in the country for having unspent S106 funds and stated that the charity Shelter and the LGA were asking councils to be ambitious in their approach to social housing. Council was advised that the recent Peer Review had advised that more could be done to protect residents from “coming down the tracks”.  Councillor Walker went on to advise the various measures that a Labour Government would put in place to ensure long term stability for local authorities and to allow them to invest in housing stock and by agreeing to the Feasibility Study, she stated that the Council would be able to act quickly in the future.


In respect of DFG, Councillor Walker advised that reducing the contribution to this grant would exacerbate waiting times, be very detrimental to  vulnerable residents and a false economy. She advised that services had already been drastically cut during years of Government austerity and any further reductions could be disastrous.  The amendment would simply divert funds over the short term to keep the grant viable, at least until there was more information on Better Care funding.


Councillor Walker concluded by stating that the Council needed to rethink how it viewed its budget and noted that the Peer Review Group had advised that a great deal of what the Council did was to its residents and not through engagement with them, and the Labour Group would like to see a budget which engaged with residents more. It was hoped that this amendment would be the start of a more collaborative and consensus building approach.


Councillor Chaplain seconded the recommendation and stated that every budget was based on choices, and in this case the main principle was to keep Council Tax in the lower quartile, whereas the Labour Group budget would focus on enhancing the lives of residents. She considered that the overriding principle should be to do as much for the community as possible, within available constraints and was concerned about the lack of consultation or engagement with communities, who would be affected by reducing discretionary expenditure. Councillor Chaplain stated that the Labour Group would prioritise climate change action and suggested that some of the projected ear marked reserves of over £800k could be used to combat climate change. Councillor Chaplain felt that many of the challenges faced by the Council were due to inaction by the current Government and she hoped for change after the next election. Councillor Chaplain stated that only council owned housing could give the feeling of permanence, which was so important to wellbeing, and the amendment was only asking for an affordable Feasibility Study to look at options, to allow the Council to make informed decisions going forward. Councillor Chaplain felt that the decision not to budget for a top up of the DFG was again based on priorities and would result in longer waiting lists, to the detriment of many and it should not happen in Rushcliffe.


Councillor Thomas thanked the Finance Team for their hard work but informed Council that she was unable to support the budget proposed by Cabinet. She referenced the £289k that the budget sacrificed by not raising Council Tax by the highest amount possible and the detrimental effect this had on valued services and added her support to the Labour Group amendment. Councillor Thomas stated that she believed car parking increases in West Bridgford could be better profiled to encourage more local shopping and social activities and called the large rises in car parking fees at Rushcliffe Country Park counterproductive, as it would inevitably lead to parking on the roads.  She considered that the increased number of homes in the Borough would put additional pressure on existing services; however, additional Council Tax was being used to bolster reserves and stay debt-free rather than investing in areas of natural growth and demand. In conclusion, Councillor Thomas called upon the Council to take urgent action to resolve the situation on new estates across the Borough, where residents were effectively paying twice for the same services, once in the form of Council Tax and again through management charges.


Councillor R Mallender thanked officers for their hard work and Councillors for the alternative budget, agreed with the sentiment regarding multi-year settlements and stated that local government reform was long overdue, and hoped that the Combined Authority Mayoral election would bring more devolution. Councillor Mallender was pleased to see funding to tackle cyber-attacks, for works to the Devonshire Road railway bridge and for refurbishing play areas.  Budgeting was required to combat climate change, improve infrastructure and the wildlife environment and he was pleased to see that the £128k grant would be partly added to the Climate Change Reserve and go towards flood resilience measures.  Councillor Mallender confirmed that the Green Group supported the Labour Group amendment and that there should be better provision for residents and simply keeping Council Tax low was not the way forward.


Councillor Bird thanked officers and Councillors for their hard work and stated that he felt that the Labour amendment was important and should be supported.


Councillor Birch acknowledged that officers were working under the direction of the majority group and stated that his criticisms were not directed at them but at the political decisions of the Conservative Group. He challenged the priority given to remaining in the bottom quartile of Council Tax charges and offered a number of other metrics in which Rushcliffe did not perform so favourably and also questioned the importance of being in the lowest quartile if doing so meant cutting valued services. He highlighted that Rushcliffe was at a natural advantage to other councils locally by virtue of its larger proportion of high valued properties, which naturally attracted a bigger Council Tax charge. Councillor Birch also questioned the spending of almost £10k on the Council’s attendance at the MJ Awards in 2023/24 and then proposing cuts in several areasthat would undoubtedly disadvantage residents.


Councillor Parekh thanked the Director of Finance and Corporate Services and his team and Councillor Virdi for their hard work in producing a balanced and prudent budget, which prepared the Council for any future uncertainties. Councillor Parekh referred to national and international challenges, which continued to cause great uncertainty, and advised that the Council had remained resilient and taken effective measures to combat that. Councillor Parekh advised that the Council could support the budget without compromising essential services, whilst remaining vigilant to the impact of Devolution, Levelling Up and the Environment Act. Councillor Parekh also acknowledged the Council’s commitment to combat climate change and increase sustainability. In the current climate, with many councils issuing s114 notices, Councillor Parekh was proud that Rushcliffe remained debt free, whilst providing excellent services, and she urged all Councillors to support this budget. 


Councillor R Walker thanked the Labour Group for their amended proposal and stated that whilst he broadly accepted the premise that there was an under supply of social housing, he could not accept that the solution would necessarily be council owned council housing and stated that all possible courses of action should be considered. Councillor Walker felt that the amendment had already concluded that council delivered housing would be the solution, which he considered to be misguided and referred to other courses of action available, including development of rural exception sites, encouraging developers to make their schemes more available, untapping capacity in the private sector, and potential development on Greenfield and Greenbelt sites. Council was reminded that an economic solution was being sought to a social problem and Councillor Walker stated that he could not support the amendment because he did not think that a Feasibility Study was required to show that the suggested model was not economically viable; however, he would be happy to work with Councillors to look at other viable alternatives.   


Councillor Polenta recognised that the budget proposed was reflective of the Council’s Corporate Strategy, was fiscally prudent and improved the lives of residents across many different areas. However, she stated that it did nothing to help families who were struggling to find or afford housing within the Borough, and she welcomed the proposed amendment, which would put housing at the epicentre of the budget, by delivering much needed housing rather than making a profit.


Councillor Plant thanked officers for their work on the budget and their support to Councillors Walker and Chaplain with the alternative proposal. She recognised that the Council was operating in a very difficult economic environment and that choices would be made in line with the political principles of the controlling party. However, she criticised the use of language used, highlighting that ‘savings’ in discretionary services were actually cuts in areas that affected residents’ quality of life. Councillor Plant also pointed out that the Council could choose to increase Council Tax slightly to avoid those cuts to services but had prioritised staying in the lowest quartile of Council Tax charged instead.


Councillor Gowland stated that in respect of affordable housing, Registered Housing Providers failed to provide support, especially to the most vulnerable, and in her experience Housing Associations existed to raise money to pay large salaries, instead of providing support.  Councillor Gowland referred to the unacceptable cuts in discretionary spending and concluded by stating that “councils can Rushcliffe won’t”.


Councillor Upton reminded Councillors that Rushcliffe had transferred its housing stock in 2003, an arrangement that he felt was working very well, and he advised that there was no in-house expertise to manage new housing stock of any size. He considered that it would be a backwards step and instead highlighted the success of the Council in providing a higher than average proportion of affordable homes. He also reminded Council that it was Empty Homes week and outlined the work the Council was doing to bring properties back into occupation. Councillor Upton concluded by clarifying that in relation to s106 and CIL contributions, the Council was essentially a banker, looking after contributions until they had built up to sufficient levels to enable infrastructure projects to be funded.


Councillor Matthews reminded Council that this meeting was to discuss Rushcliffe’s budget and was not about other authorities or organisations and referred to the importance of keeping Council Tax low and using it prudently to help residents.


Councillor Gaunt stated that the Labour Group proposal was only asking for two small, fully funded amendments to help residents, including £20k for a Feasibility Study asking experts to look holistically at options and to ensure that works could be undertaken on housing to enable people to continue living in them.


Councillor Simms suggested that the proposals for a Feasibility Study should be brought forward separately to enable proper consideration and he felt that it was important for the Council to communicate positively about its achievements, to ensure that residents were informed about the work of the Council and how their Council Tax was spent.


Councillor Chewings thanked the Director of Finance and Corporate Services and his team for their hard work.  He went on to say that he was saddened that there would be no opportunity to vote on the Labour amendment first and asked if next year the process could be changed.  Councillor Chewings noted the Leader’s comments that Rushcliffe had the lowest Council Tax in the county and one of the lowest in the country; however, he considered the real headlines of the budget to be the 40% increase to parking charges in West Bridgford and up to 200% for parking at Rushcliffe Country Park. Councillor Chewings went onto refer to the cuts to the DFG, which would significantly affect residents.  In respect of the Medium Term Financial Strategy, Councillor Chewings stated that the Leader had failed to mention that there would be a £1.6m deficit at the end of the five years, which would result in further cuts or increased taxes.  Councillor Chewings referred to the £10k, which he felt had been wasted attending the MJ Awards and noted that although the Leader had advised that this was a small fraction of the budget, there were now proposals to cut funding for those amounts, and he would not be supporting this budget. 


In respect of the point raised by Councillor Chewings, the Monitoring Officer advised that rules of debate tonight were in the Constitution and had been adopted by Council in July 2023.


Councillor Barney thanked officers for their incredible work during the recent flooding and stated that this was the reason why the Council needed to maintain reserves, to ensure that support could be provided quickly and  effectively. He highlighted the need to support a balanced budget so that  the many challenges being faced could be addressed and expressed hissympathies to councillors in other authorities who were unable to support their residents in this way due to ongoing financial hardship.


Councillor J Wheeler reminded Council that Rushcliffe continued to invest in its facilities and stated that car parking charges at Rushcliffe Country Park remained very low compared to similar parks, with the income helping to maintain and improve parking.  Councillor Wheeler advised that the Council wanted to remain debt free to ensure that all its money could be used to deliver services.  Councillor Wheeler stated that Rushcliffe should be proud that it had more affordable housing than any other district, with the mix of housing on estates working well to improve social cohesion.  In respect of the DFG, Councillor Wheeler advised that there would be £3.5m funding over the next five years, and it was hoped that more funded would be made available going forward. He thanked the Labour Group for putting forward their amendment, which had allowed for a healthy debate.   


Councillor Butler stated that Rushcliffe was a good council, which had been recognised recently by the LGA Peer Review team. He brought Council’s attention specifically to the Capital Investment Projects detailed on pages 80 and 81 of the report and highlighted that good financial management enabled the Council to invest in its communities and the Borough.


Councillor J Walker thanked Councillors for their support for the alternative budget proposed by the Labour Group and clarified that it was not a request for funding to build new homes but to explore the possibility of doing so through a Feasibility Study. She wanted the Council to fully understand the many different models of home ownership and how a mix of those models was needed to meet the challenging needs of local communities.


Councillor Virdi thanked all Councillors for their engagement and measured contributions and advised that the Council was in an excellent financial position but that the future still contained a number of challenges that threatened instability. Councillor Virdi stated that the Council was nationally recognised as an authority that delivered high quality services, innovative capital projects whilst maintaining a balanced budget year after year. Council was reminded that it held that position by making prudent and financially sound decisions, working with partners to deliver services, finding savings where it could, and by making difficult decisions when required and the Council’s achievements should not be underestimated. He stated that the Council’s reserves were comfortable, but they were essential to respond to unforeseen circumstances, and in such a volatile environment those reserves should be protected. In summary, Councillor Virdi reminded Councillors of the various consultations that they had been invited to participate in and stated that he was proud to present this Budget and Financial Strategy for approval.


Councillor Clarke praised the Labour Group for putting forward an alternative budget and recognised that their proposals had positively contributed towards the debate. Heresponded to the concerns of several Councillors about the metrics used to compare Rushcliffe with other local authorities and the use of these figures in publicity materials. He highlighted the importance the Council placed on providing a balanced mix of housing on all new developments and quoted a number of figures in relation to affordable housing. He concluded by moving the recommendation and asking all Councillors to vote for the prudent, legal and sustainable Budget and Financial Strategy as proposed.


In accordance with the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2014, a recorded vote was taken for this item as follows:


FOR: Councillors M Barney, A Brennan, A Brown, R Butler, N Clarke, T Combellack, J Cottee, A Edyvean, S Ellis, R Inglis, D Mason, P Matthews, H Om, H Parekh, A Phillips, N Regan, D Simms, D Soloman, R Upton, D Virdi, R Walker, T Wells, D Wheeler, J Wheeler and G Williams


AGAINST: Councillors T Birch, R Bird, S Calvert, J Chaplain, K Chewings, G Fletcher, M Gaunt, E Georgiou, P Gowland, C Grocock, R Mallender, S Mallender, L Plant, D Polenta, C Thomas, J Walker and L Way


It was RESOLVED that:


a)               the report of the Council’s Responsible Financial Officer on the robustness of the Council’s budget and the adequacy of reserves as detailed at Annex A to the report be accepted;


b)               the budget setting report and associated financial strategies 2024/25 to 2028/29, as detailed at Annex B to the report, including changes to fees and charges regarding Garden Waste and Car Parking as set out in Annex B, Appendix 5 to the report be adopted;

c)               the Transformation and Efficiency Plan as set out in Annex B, Appendix 7 to the report, which incorporates the Government’s requirements for a Productivity Plan required to be published by July 2024 be adopted;


d)               the Capital Programme as set out in Annex B, Appendix 3 to the report be adopted;


e)               the Capital and Investment Strategy as set out in Annex B, Appendix 8 to the report be adopted;


f)                 the Second Home Premium as set out in Annex B, Section 3.4 to the report, and any notification of further exemptions to be adopted and incorporated into a revised policy be approved;


g)               the creation of a new Flood Grant and Resilience Reserve as set out in Annex B, Section 6 of the report be approved;


h)               Rushcliffe’s 2024/25 Council Tax for a Band D property at £157.88 (increase from 2023/24 of £3.93 or 2.55%) be set;


i)                 the Special Expenses for 2024/25 for West Bridgford, Ruddington and Keyworth, as detailed in Appendix 1 to the report be set, resulting in the following Band D Council Tax levels for the Special Expense Areas:


i)                 West Bridgford £59.44 (£55.95 in 2023/24)

ii)        Keyworth £4.69 (£4.38 in 2023/24)

iii)       Ruddington £3.29 (£3.68 in 2023/24);


j)                 with regards to recommendations h) and i), the associated Bands in accordance with the formula in section 36(1) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 be set; and

k)               the Pay Policy Statement as set out in Annex B, Appendix 6 to the report be adopted.

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