Leader’s blog – Friday 5 January 2024

The Leader reflects on a busy start to 2024, as the council launches its draft budget.

Cllr Tony Cox wearing a navy blue suit jacket, white shirt and a pink, blue and white flowery tie. He is sitting in front of the Council Coat of Arms.

Firstly, Happy New Year to you all. I hope that you enjoyed a restful Christmas break.

As we enter 2024 it is straight back to work. Since I became leader in May, you will have heard me talk almost endlessly about council finances and the challenges we face.

Yesterday, we launched our draft budget for 2024/25 and it is fair to say that very tough choices are on the table. We're looking at making over £14m in savings in 2024/25 alone, so that we can safeguard essential services and keep our financial ship afloat.

We are proposing a 4.99% increase in council tax. That's 2.99% for general use and an extra 2% for adult social care pressures. I know that no one likes the idea of paying more, but it's a necessary step to tackle the £19m of unavoidable cost pressures we face, including increased demand in adult and children's social care, rising payments to providers due to the rise in national living wage, and rising energy costs for example.

New savings and income proposals are needed and these total just over £14.3m. From rescheduling debt repayments to looking at team restructures, every move is calculated to ensure we can balance the books. It means making some very tough calls particularly where our staff and buildings, and the fees we charge for certain services are concerned.

The proposals mean that up to 80 full-time equivalent roles could be deleted from the organisation. This includes 29 roles already approved for voluntary redundancy. We're committed to avoiding compulsory redundancies as far as possible and we're exploring every avenue such as internal redeployment and further voluntary redundancy, and will be working closely with unions to support our staff.

The reality is, we're not out of the woods yet. Future years will demand continued savings and transformation to bridge an estimated budget gap of £35.1m up to 2028/29. We have also had to refocus our capital investment programme, but it remains ambitious, but just as importantly it is realistic and deliverable.

Times are tough but it's not all doom and gloom as we've made huge strides to be able to present a draft budget that balances the books and keeps financial control in our own hands. We have also reduced our forecasted overspend by £4.5m and this is now down to £6.3m thanks to a lot of hard work and focus.  I am also pleased that we have also been able to take a couple of previous budget proposals off the table too. There will be no library closures in 2024/25 and we will continue to fund the NetPark project to the tune of £50,000 per year. Hourly parking charges will be frozen and proposal to reduce the community grant programme administered by Southend Association of Voluntary Services (SAVS) will not go ahead next year.

As I have said before, there are no easy choices. We're in a difficult position, and we need to bring in more money, raise charges, and tighten our belts further to protect the services that matter most to you and we're not shying away from this challenge.

The draft budget is now launched and will now go through the democratic cycle before being discussed and approved by Full Council at the end of February.

I will keep you updated. Have a good weekend.

Cllr Tony Cox,
Leader of the Council

Published: 5th January 2024

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