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From County Councillor Lorraine Lindsay-Gale
Prior to Christmas, Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) went out to consultation on possible additional budget cuts totalling £51m, at the time believed to be the worst-case scenario. However, due to a change in the funding formula, which penalised shire counties, the settlement was even worse than expected and the additional savings required now total £69m. In response to protests from shire counties, on 11th February the Government announced transitional funding and OCC will receive £9m across two financial years in respect of this.
The Council met on Tuesday 16th February to debate the budget measures necessary to achieve the savings. Although most of the savings will still go ahead, a cross-party agreement was made on the day incorporating the following changes:
· A total of £2m of savings relating to Early Intervention Hubs and Children’s Centres will now not take place. An original £6m saving on Early Intervention Hubs and Children’s Centres - agreed by the council at its annual budget meeting in February 2015 - will still take place. No decisions have been taken at this stage on how this £2m will be spent.
· A total of £3m of savings relating to day centres (including transport to day centres) will now not take place. Instead they will be replaced by a saving of £1m from 2017/18 resulting from a full review of all day services for older people.
· There will be a further £300,000 contribution to the budget from reserves.
The net result of this is that the council will be able to set a balanced budget in 2016/17 but over the medium term now has £15.2m of unidentified savings to make as opposed to the previous figure of £11.2m. The new £4m of unidentified savings all fall in 2017/18.
A number of other important decisions were made during the debate:
· A cross-party board of county councillors will be created to consider how best to use the transitional funds.
· The council will consider workplace parking with a view to early implementation.
· There will be a review of the number of Cabinet members.
· The benefits of a Unitary Council will be discussed on a cross-party basis and full and timetabled consultation will be prepared. This will be subject a free vote for all councillors.
PROPOSALS FOR DISTRICT UNITARY COUNCILS
On Thursday 25th February a surprise announcement was made by Oxfordshire's District Councils and Oxford City Council. (This may have been in response to OCC's call for a debate on a single Unitary Council for the county.) It called for the abolition of OCC and the establishment of four district unitaries:
· A new Southern Oxfordshire Unitary Authority would cover the area currently administered by Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire District Councils.
· An Oxford City Unitary Authority would be formed in the centre of the county, covering the area currently administered by Oxford City Council.
· A West Oxfordshire-Cotswold Unitary Authority covering the area currently administered by West Oxfordshire District Council and Cotswold District Council.
· A Cherwell-South Northants Unitary Authority covering the area currently administered by Cherwell District Council and South Northamptonshire Council.
OCC welcomes the District Councils' engagement in the Unitary debate and will shortly be putting forward its own proposals.
FROM COUNTY COUNCILLOR LORRAINE LINDSAY-GALE BUDGET As reported last month, prior to Christmas, Oxfordshire County Council went out to consultation on possible additional budget cuts totalling £51m, which at the time was believed to be the worst-case scenario. It was hoped that when central Government confirmed the local government settlement that not all the 95 savings measures consulted on would have to be taken. As it transpired, due to a change in the funding formula which unexpectedly penalised shire counties, the settlement was even worse than expected and the total additional savings required now total £69m. The Council found a series of short-term measures, including drawing on reserves, to buy time before we have to make yet more new savings to cover the difference between £51m and £69m. Our approach remains the same: we want to try to protect the most vulnerable people in Oxfordshire – by which we mean those adults who need help with basic personal care and children at risk of abuse or neglect. By law, OCC has to produce a balanced budget and this was debated by Full Council on February 16th, including a proposal to raise Council Tax by 3.99%. BACKLASH AGAINST SHIRE COUNTIES SETTLEMENT On the 8th February the Minister Greg Clark announced a final Local Government Settlement. Due to significant pressure from over 50 MPs from shire counties, a ‘Transitional Grant’ to alleviate the impact of proposed cuts to services was included. Oxfordshire will receive £4.5m in 2016-2017 and £4.5m in 2017-2018. The decisions about how this money will be used will be made following the setting of the budget on February 16th . PROPERTY, BACK OFFICE AND RESERVES There have been misleading media reports that OCC could reduce its financial challenges by selling property, cutting the back office and drawing on reserves. The reality is that OCC has already sold more than100 properties realising over £62 million that has been used on capital projects. Furthermore, 26 leases have been terminated saving over £2.1 million pa. With regard to back office functions, the number of directors has been cut by 50%, senior managers by over 40% and staff generally by 30%. Various services are already shared with other councils and partners, and further options are being explored to find even more back office savings. Reserves are already being drawn upon and will soon become low compared to expenditure. RISE OF APPRENTICES BOOSTS THRIVING OXFORDSHIRE ECONOMY Recent growth in the number of Oxfordshire young people choosing apprenticeships as the key to forging a career is outstripping regional figures. While the number of apprenticeship starts for 16-24 year-olds fell across the South East by 2.5 per cent in 2014/15 compared with the previous academic year, Oxfordshire’s figure rose by 2.4 per cent, as employers took on 2,510 new starters.