The Leader of the Council, Cllr Lib Peck, noted the supplementary paper published after the main agenda pack which included the recommendations of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee for the Budget 2018/19.
The Deputy Leader of the Council (Finance and Resources), Cllr Imogen Walker, introduced the report and noted that Council spending continued to be restricted due to severe funding cuts from central government. Despite this the Council continued to work to promote equality, inclusive growth and create strong, sustainable neighbourhoods. A funding gap of £40.9m over the period of 2018/19 to 2020/21 had been mitigated through various measures, including an identified £28m of brought forward savings. Essential services would also be maintained through increases in council tax and the Adult Social Care precept, as well as further new savings. There were however no proposed savings in Children’s Services whilst the improvement process was underway and care leavers would be exempt from council tax. The report also identified Council’s capital investment proposals.
The Vice Chair Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Resources), Cllr Andy Wilson, addressed Cabinet in relation to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) recommendations as outlined in the supplementary paper. In particular, Cllr Wilson noted:
· In relation to the current Housing Benefits Overpayment debt; lobbying of central government should continue in favour of transferring this debt back to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) once Universal Credit had been rolled out.
· That more focus was needed on the pipeline of demand in relation to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who required Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. The Council and Schools Forum needed to have more in-depth conversations about the funding system.
· There were plans in place to replenish the Council’s reserves, but these needed to be strengthened further; however the Council’s capacity for flexibility was increasingly limited.
· That growing income streams needed to be at the centre of the Council’s financial strategy. OSC would seek to be involved in the Commercialisation Strategy due to come forward in 2018/19.
In response, the Director of Finance and Property, Christina Thompson, said that the issue of housing benefit overpayment debt had been discussed at length at the meeting of OSC a clearer picture would emerge once people were transferred across to Universal Credit. Officers would continue to work with colleagues at London Councils and the Local Government Association (LGA) to lobby for the transferal of the debt back to the DWP.
Cabinet members then raised the following comments and questions:
· The Council would fully support the LGA‘s cross-party campaign against the under-resourcing of Children’s Services.
· Councils across the country faced funding gaps as a result of cuts from Government. This Budget was designed to minimise the impact on the most vulnerable members of society but it could only go so far. Northamptonshire County Council had been unable to meet its financial requirements and had issued a Section 114 notice. This should act as a wakeup call to Government.
· All policy ambitions were built on the platform of a sustainable budget and the Council would not take risks with Council finances. The requirement to make savings often resulted in unpalatable choices and the Council would explore new ways to generate income. Many of the savings proposed in the report were undesirable, but good outcomes could often be achieved by delivering services differently.
· Public health spending must be protected as much as possible, as OSC had pointed out.
· OSC was thanked for raising the issue of SEND funding. It was positive the Council had recognised this as a priority for helping young people and tackling inequality.
· The Council had worked to ensure that funding cuts didn’t disproportionately affect people with protected characteristics.
· There was still no sustainable funding system for Adult Social Care (ASC). ASC was a demand led service that protected the most vulnerable people in society and it was wrong to continue funding it through council tax and precepts. Urgent action was required to address the underfunding and members looked forward to the Government’s forthcoming Green Paper.
· Financial sustainability was crucial to effective local governance. Northamptonshire County Council was in a very difficult situation and this was not the same in Lambeth. However, the general funding of local government was a cause for concern and local authorities across the country were stepping up to address Government failures.
In response to questions from members, officers provided the following information:
· £32m of debt relating to Housing Benefits Overpayments remained on the Council’s balance sheet. The Council was lobbying through multiple forums to have the debt transferred to the DWP.
· In light of circumstances at Northamptonshire County Council, the risks surrounding the budget would continue to be monitored closely. Lambeth employed robust practices that enabled it to manage the budget.
· The challenge facing local government funding in the future was the phasing out of Revenue Support Grant, and the increase in reliance on funding via Business Rates and Council tax which meant an increasing reliance on development within the borough to fund services.
Cllr Peck summarised the discussion and noted the impact of austerity in places like Northamptonshire. Members would continue to campaign against funding cuts and in favour of long-term solutions for services such as Children’s Social Care. Lambeth would monitor budgetary risks and innovate to find new ways of generating income. It could also be proud of the commitment to exempt care leavers from council tax obligations. Thanks were expressed to Cllr Imogen Walker and officers for their work on the Budget.
It was RESOLVED:
(1) To recommend Council to note or adopt the recommendations listed in the report.
(2) To approve the disposal of the properties identified as ‘new disposals’ in Appendix 6b