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Approved budget to focus on young, old and vulnerable

Sunday, 18 February 2024 10:00

By Alison Stephenson, local democracy reporter

Money (image courtesy: Sarah Agnew/Unsplash)

Amendments to cut staff rejected

Pleas to slash the number of Devon County Council’s managers and ‘spin doctors’ and spend more on filling potholes and libraries have been rejected.

The full council approved the Conservative administration’s budget for 2024/25 which includes raising its element of council tax by 4.99 per cent from April.

Finance leaders said the budget, of which 79 per cent will go on adult social care and improving children’s services, would  “steer the council out of dangerous waters”.

The council’s children’s services are said to be improving after two poor ratings by Ofsted in 2018 and 2020, but inspectors say there is still more to do.

Amendments by the Liberal Democrats, and Independent and Green groups to cut bureaucracy and jobs in corporate services and communications to free up to £2.6 million for road safety measures and community libraries were not supported.

The proposed budget, which increases spending on children services by 10 per cent and social care by six per cent, was approved by 34 votes to 14.

Revenue spending will increase by £43 million to £743 million in 2024/25.

The council is seeking financial support from the Department of Education’s Safety Valve Programme to address its £165 million predicted overspend on special educational needs and disabilities provision (SEND) but will also have to use its own reserves to reduce the deficit over time.

The 2024/25 budget includes extra funds for road drainage and the council will be able to continue supporting district councils and other organisations on homelessness for another year.

An average Band D household will see their council tax rise by £81.54 a year to £1,715.67 – an extra £1.56 a week. This will be added to the parish and district elements of the council tax as well as the police and fire services.

The 4.99 per cent increase, which is the maximum it can charge without holding a referendum, includes a two per cent rise for adult social care.

Leader of the Liberal Democrat group Cllr Caroline Leaver (Barnstaple South) said Devon was the “pothole capital of the country”.

She said this could be addressed by reducing the budget for councillor and staff transport, with more virtual meetings and home working, having fewer agency staff and making efficiencies in corporate services.

She added that instead of raising councillors’ locality budgets for community projects to £8,000, they could all put £1,000 towards improving library services.

She said the council is being propped up by its reserves  – “the family silver” – and had already raided £9 million from it to pay for services.

Independent group leader Frank Biederman said cuts in funding from the government meant that the council was £150 million worse off than 13 years ago.

He said it wasn’t right that there was £213 less for educating each child in Devon than the national average.

“We are not being levelled up, we are being levelled into the ground,” he said.

He said when you took the SEND overspend into account the council is “effectively bankrupt”.

“We need to reduce our managers, we have a CEO and a deputy, nine directors of service and countless managers before we get to the people that deliver the service,s and why do we need 28 spin doctors doing our communications. We have 60 councillors who talk to their communities.”

Conservative leader of the council John Hart (Bickleigh and Wembury) said the amendments, which were also supported by Labour, were nothing more than a “hatchett job” on staff. A rationalisation of staff is on the cards in the medium to long term – the council plans to reduce the workforce by 700 to save £25 million– but he said he would be done by working together in a sensible manner.

He added: “I would love to spend more on highways, and we will do that if we have any spare money, but at the moment we have to look after our young, old and vulnerable,” he said.

Cllr Jacqi Hodgeson (Green Totnes and Dartington) said the council had become “public puppets waiting for the next windfall”.

 

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