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Budget proposals to balance the books following the most challenging year in Wyre Forest District Council’s history will be discussed by Cabinet next week.
Members will consider the draft Medium Term Financial Strategy when they meet on Tuesday 22 December, containing a raft of options which will ultimately be decided by full council at the annual budget-setting meeting in February.
The council had already been facing a £1.7 million shortfall by 2022-23 before Covid-19 struck, putting extra demands on services and resources and drastically reducing income. And although Government funding has offset some of the costs of the pandemic, it does not cover all costs and losses incurred and the funding gap is forecast to increase to £2.6m by the end of 2023-24.
The proposals set out how the budget can be balanced in light of the additional strains on the council and have been shaped by public opinion. The views of 894 residents who completed the council’s annual budget consultation have been taken into account.
The report does not propose cutting any services, but puts forward options for how the council might deliver services differently in future to save costs and protect frontline services, such as joining forces to deliver services in partnership with other local authorities and organisations.
Results of the consultation showed widespread support for the council’s proposals by the majority of those completing the survey. A majority of 59% of residents said they would be prepared to pay more council tax for district council services, compared with 41% who were not.
Respondents were more evenly split on proposals to transfer more discretionary services, with 55% in support and 46% against.
There was overwhelming support for all other proposals, including exploring more shared services (74% for, 26% against); developing a Local Plan with other local councils in the area (79% for, 21% against); reviewing the future of Wyre Forest House (85% for, 15% against); reviewing electoral boundaries (78% for, 22% against) and reviewing the council’s management structure (92% for, 8% against).
The only proposal that was not supported was the option to outsource or privatise services, which 63% of respondents disagreed with and 37% supported.
Councillor Graham Ballinger, Leader of Wyre Forest District Council said: “These proposals represent a realistic way forward that will allow us to balance the books in the wake of the most challenging period in the Council’s history.
“Before the pandemic struck we were on course to achieve the savings necessary to meet a substantial shortfall due to changes in the way councils are funded. This year’s pandemic has put even more strain on our services, creating greater demands while at the same time reducing our income.
“The council has a strong track record for successfully achieving savings, becoming more efficient and growing income but we’ve now reached the point that significant changes are required to create a smaller council and protect frontline services.
“I’m so proud of the way our staff have rallied and worked tirelessly to keep services going and support our residents and businesses in a way we could not even have imagined twelve months ago.
“But the pandemic has taken its toll and there is no doubt that the council will have to become much smaller and find new ways of operating as a result of combination of pressures, which includes the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s trading position in light of leaving the European Union.
“Our draft proposals will involve a challenging but achievable programme of work. We have listened to the views of residents who took part in the survey and we will do everything we can to avoid outsourcing or privatising services. It may not be realistic to ignore this avenue entirely, but I promise we would only consider this as a last resort once all other possible delivery options have been examined and exhausted.”
The Cabinet’s budget proposals have been drawn up ahead of the Government’s provisional funding settlement for local councils in 2021-22, which is expected to be released later this week.