9th January 2023
I’d like to start by wishing you a very Happy New Year and hope that you enjoyed a good Christmas with friends and family. We start the new year facing significant global challenges, all of which continue to directly impact our lives but I’m hopeful that we are entering a phase of more stability during the coming year.
This leads me onto the subject of finances and the council’s costs in the coming financial year. This week I and the other members of the council’s Cabinet considered our plans for spending and council tax rates for 2023-24, and I wanted to write to you to explain the proposals and what they mean for households in Buckinghamshire.
We know that next year, due to high inflation and a rise in demand for our services, we have to find an extra £63 million to cover our costs, before a penny of next year’s budget is even allocated. This represents a significant challenge for us and even though we have already made savings of over £27 million since becoming a single council in 2020, we are working hard to find another £10 million savings across all departments next year so this can also help towards balancing our books in 2023/24. Making these extra savings will help us to close this gap alongside other measures we’re putting forward in the budget, including our proposed council tax rates.
In order for us to balance the books next year and to be able commit enough money to our core services like social care for vulnerable children and adults, and continue to invest in our roads, schools and other priority areas we are proposing a rise in the base rate of council tax of 2.99% from 1 April 2023. We also have to fund huge adult social care costs and are acutely aware that relieving pressures in the social care sector will in turn help the NHS during a period of considerable demand. It means we are also taking up the government’s proposal for a social care precept of 2%, meaning an overall rise in bills of 4.99%.
I do not want to put up council tax by a single penny but the reality is that we cannot achieve a balanced budget next year without doing so; last year’s council tax increase was well below inflation and now, with inflation running at more than 10% (and even higher at around 20-30% for some of our costs), even with substantial savings, this is the only way we can pay for the services we provide whilst shielding residents from the bulk of the cost increases.
I want to highlight that there is a significant level of support available to residents facing particular hardship and I urge anyone worried about debt or paying the bills to look at our dedicated Cost of Living webpages for initial guidance and support. If you have specific concerns about paying your council tax, please contact our team directly to discuss further options.
I want to close this section by highlighting that while we are in a sobering position, we are still in a financially stable place and I am determined that we will continue to be a very efficient and value for money council. While it’s difficult proposing a 4.99% council tax rise, I am still pleased that we can still commit considerable funding to key areas that matter to our residents. We had nearly 2,000 responses from residents to our budget survey in the autumn that have helped us form the following plans around allocating funding. We’re proposing spending:
- more than £125 million fixing and maintaining roads
- nearly £143 million for improvements to schools
- £20 million on housing and tackling homelessness
- more than £14 million to tackle Climate Change and prevent flooding
- and, investing more than £20 million in our waste and recycling facilities
We have seen a rise in the number of councils issuing what are known as ‘Section 114 notices’ – where they are effectively ‘bankrupt’ and simply unable to set a balanced budget. We are not in that situation here in Buckinghamshire and I’m pleased that we can still set aside expenditure on the above areas, such as roads, drains and helping the most disadvantaged within the 2023/24 plans.
Other cost of living support
The council’s comprehensive support is outlined at the link I’ve already mentioned above, in particular through our Helping Hand service which supports local households experiencing hardship. In addition, there is the ‘Help for Households’ webpages on the government’s website and I also want to mention the £2 bus fare cap that has started this month for many local bus services in Buckinghamshire, another strand of national support available to households during these challenging times.
It’s up to operators directly as to whether they take up this scheme and it’s good news that many are doing so here; you can see whether your local bus service is taking part by checking the list on the government’s website.
Bledlow HRC reopening
I also wanted to make a quick mention that – reflecting our overall stable financial position – we are continuing to invest in essential local services for our residents. Waste and recycling is one of the universal services that we all rely on, and I’m really pleased that we’re in a position to be reopening our Household Recycling Centre at Bledlow in a week’s time, to serve residents in that area with the continuing future expansion of Princes Risborough also in mind.
This site will be open five days a week (closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays) and operate on a slightly different basis to when it was previously open, in that it will be free to Buckinghamshire residents but people who want to use it from outside the county will have to pay a fee. To this end, we would ask visitors to bring proof of address and also to bear in mind this is a rural location, so to take care when driving to and from the site and check webcams to avoid busy times where possible.
I want to sign off with a reminder to you all to take care of yourselves and others. The dark and cold days post-Christmas, with the extra challenges we are all facing around the cost of living can take their toll so please be mindful of your own health and wellbeing, both physical and mental, and reach out if you feel you need any extra advice or support. A good starting point is our own Health and Wellbeing website which points to various useful bits of information, advice and how to seek help if you need it.
Leader, Buckinghamshire Council