To consider a report by the Director for Digital, Sustainability and Resources, copy attached as item 14
The Committee had a report before it, attached as item 14, a copy of which had been circulated to all Members, a copy of which is attached to the signed copy of these minutes.
A Member asked, “It is important that the budget is aligned with the council's strategy and key priorities. Can you explain how your budget strategy aligns with the Administration’s key priorities?”
Response - The Worthing Cabinet Member for Resources stated since the election in May 2022, there had been some significant changes to the economic outlook, inflation was at a 40 year high and interest rates had increased significantly. Those macro economic forces had impacted significantly on the Council’s financial prospects and the Council had adjusted its plans accordingly.
Despite this the Council expected to be able to remove the £5.00 minimum payment, supporting our poorest residents.
The Council had also retained some capacity within the budget to deliver on other aspirations, although given their financial circumstances this would be focussed on initiatives which provided the best value for money or where they could lever in partnership funding from elsewhere.
However much depended on local government settlement and the impact it had on the final position.
A Member asked, “In your cabinet member Q&A in the summer you said that you had organised a Business Forum and that you planned to take forward the best ideas that emerged at the event. Could you tell us which of the ideas that emerged at the event you are taking forward.”
Response - The Council did run a business forum but as well as this they had also been receiving additional feedback from the Big Listen Campaign. A number of themes emerged from the feedback and whilst the Council did not have the capacity to deliver all of them in one go, they were reviewing where they were with each area:
Consultation; businesses wanted to be heard - the business forum and Big Listen were good examples of this, whilst Members had also been visiting businesses in their outer parades, as well as the town centre, promoting their Small Business Growth Grant
Interest in green issues - there was real support for ‘greening’ of the Borough but also an appetite from businesses to get involved to support their own green journeys. The Council was heavily promoting opportunities such as LoCASE (green business support), whilst they continued to deliver new EV charging points and provided an effective commercial waste service.
The town needs promoting - they were reaching out to a number of partners to re-engage under the Time for Worthing banner. Colleagues had been re-gearing the brand to ensure there was value for businesses to get involved whilst there was still a great emphasis on outward promotion (regional and national). But, the Council couldn’t do this by themselves, so they were encouraging collaboration through the new partners they were finding.
Public transport needs to be improved - this was not only for customers but also for staff. They were starting fresh conversations with WSCC about prioritising actions around bus transport, whilst they had just approved the expansion of bike share. They knew more could be done around this agenda and hoped that WSCC would support them in improving this provision.
Further to the above, they were also extremely concerned about how the Cost of Living crisis was affecting businesses and those that work within them. You would have seen they had committed to a Cost of Living Roadmap, with one of those actions looking at further information from businesses about how they had been affected and explored if there was anything the Council could do to further support. The survey, which was ‘live’ from then until the end of January, would provide them with vital information which, in turn, would lead to other realistic interventions.
A Member asked, ‘At the full council meeting in October I asked a question about the council's Council Tax Support scheme and the leader told me that there was a cost saving to the council due to the changes that you have proposed to make to the scheme (the abolition of the £5 restriction). Can you elaborate on the leader's comments please and explain where the cost saving that she claimed exists will come from?”
Response - At the time, the estimate of the cost of the removal of the £5.00 restriction was around £720,520. This would be split across the precepting authorities as follows:
Worthing Borough Council - £89,440
West Sussex County Council - £551,370
Sussex Police Authority - £79,710
With the introduction of a new scheme, the current hardship scheme could be ended which would produce a net saving of £33,900 to offset the loss of income for the Council. Consequently, the net cost was likely to be in the region of £55,540.
The proposed removal of the 1 month discount would partially offset this cost if approved. This change would generate an overall gain to the Collection Fund of £60,000 of which Worthing would benefit by approximately £7,500
This change would also support the proposed reductions in the revenues and benefits team, identified within the budget report. Overall resources within the team were expected to reduce by £74,730 however this was due to a range of factors including digital improvements, reduced administrative costs from changes to Council Tax and falling benefits workload. This change would support the delivery of these savings.
Savings come in many shapes and forms. Taking money away from the poorest residents would in the long run cost money. Helping residents in this way would reduce their need to use services so the council would see financial savings there.
The true bottom line is that there was a moral justification in making this change. The Leader would be happy to debate this further at a future Full Council.
Further questions were raised about The Big Clean project, the ending of the hardship fund and council financial reserves. Members were told The Big Clean was a cheap and cost effective event to run, that the hardship fund had effectively been replaced by the Cost of Living Strategy and that council reserves were varied but usable reserves were facing a significant reduction.