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Chelmsford Council budget tackles huge cash loss from Covid and works on a greener, fairer district

January 21, 2021 5:43 PM
Originally published by Chelmsford Liberal Democrats

Rose Moore, Mike Mackrory and Richard Lee planting a treeChelmsford City Council's budget for 2021/22 will protect essential services, while dealing with a forecast £7.5 million shortfall. The budget will deliver a greener, fairer and better connected Chelmsford. It will support post-Covid recovery and address the financial costs of the pandemic.

Cash for day-to-day spending is severely restricted. However, the Council is able to borrow to invest for our future.

Projects for 2021/22 include:

  • Greener Chelmsford: Continued funding to deal with the Climate & Ecological Emergency Another 15-17,000 trees to be planted and habitats created; reducing the Council's carbon footprint from its own operations, and pressing developers to reduce their carbon impact. Councillor Davidson (Cabinet Member for a Fairer Chelmsford) said, "Climate change is real. It's the greatest threat to our way of life, and addressing it will help our economy recover. We need to urgently reduce our carbon emissions and place nature at the heart of our communities. Boosting biodiversity will ensure the future for our children and grandchildren."

  • Fairer Chelmsford: £10 million in housing and homelessness relief. This will boost affordable housing and house rough sleepers. (Additionally, £7 million is currently being spent to house many of the 250 homeless families in Chelmsford.) It has never been more important to make housing - a basic right - more accessible for all. We remain determined to greatly increase the provision of genuinely affordable homes in a fairer Chelmsford, and are pushing on with new developments despite the lockdowns. We will continue to direct all those struggling to appropriate support.

  • Better Connected Chelmsford: Freezing charges at city centre car parks When the doors of our local shops can reopen, they will be keen to re-establish themselves at the heart of the local economy. Not increasing parking fees for 2021/22 will help to support our High Street and independent retailers to get back on their feet.

  • Better Connected Chelmsford: £1 million invested in Chelmsford City Theatres The arts sector has been hard-hit by the pandemic and was a fast-growing sector before coronavirus arrived. Targeted investment in refurbishing the theatre and attracting more visitors will help the arts to recover locally, providing a venue for the community and much-needed jobs for arts professionals.

At a public online meeting on 26 January, Chelmsford City Council's Cabinet members will discuss the proposals (Agenda), tabled by Councillor Chris Davidson.

Dealing with Covid losses

In common with Councils across the country, Chelmsford City Council has faced huge financial losses that have been documented throughout the pandemic. In June, the authority announced that its expected deficit for 2020/21 was £8.6 million. This was a result of lost income from leisure centres, museums, theatres, events, car parks, as well as expected increasing costs related to the pandemic, such as homelessness and new benefit claims.

By July, this had risen to £9.5 million, and then £10 million. The total income loss for 2020-21 is now in the region of £16.5 million. The Government agreed during 2020 to provide £7 million of funding and the council made internal savings. But that still leaves a £3 million shortfall for the current year.

Some of the shortfall from the pandemic will continue into 2021/22 (e.g. in car parking and leisure), so cost savings and new income are required to protect key services and legally balance the budget.

Councillor Chris Davidson said, "The past year has been extremely hard on everyone: - residents, businesses, voluntary groups and councils. We've seen it in the numbers of people contacting us for homelessness support and in the £38 million of grants we've paid out to struggling local businesses.

"The coming year's budget presents a particular challenge. We must help Chelmsford recover by making carefully chosen, important investments while also protecting our essential services that will deliver a greener, fairer and better-connected Chelmsford.

"We must also, of course, balance the books so we're in a strong position for the future. The Government has not stepped in to cover all our losses from the pandemic. So some hard decisions will have to be made."

The proposed 2021/22 Budget includes actions to mitigate the financial threat caused by the pandemic, including:

  • Making savings by reviewing insurance and other contracts, smarter use of technology, not filling vacant posts and being careful with other staff costs, smarter use of technology, and reducing paper - for meetings and financial payments such as cheques.
  • Making other revenue savings by borrowing. Councillor Davidson said, "There is no way out of this crisis without either stopping essential services or borrowing more. National debt is the highest it has been since the 1960s and local government is under the same pressures. We will keep the Council's level of borrowing affordable, as set out in the budget proposals."
  • Charging developers more for planning and building services; providing some services to neighbouring councils and from some fee increases for popular events.
  • The introduction of a parking charge at Hylands Park in order to protect the historic landscape of Hylands Park. Councillor Davidson said, "The value of parks and open spaces to residents has been amply demonstrated during the pandemic and we know how well-loved Hylands is. However, at the moment thousands of people from across Essex use the park without making any direct financial contribution to the £520,000 net cost. It is all borne by Chelmsford taxpayers. We think it is fairer that non-residents should contribute, so that we can maintain and invest in the park, to keep it the beautiful place that it is."
  • A Council Tax increase of £4.95 per year for average Band D homes. Councillor Davidson said, "For the past six years, Council Tax has increased by just under £5 a year on average, so this increase is not unusual and is the maximum allowed."

The Cabinet Meeting takes place on Tuesday 26 January (7pm). If approved, the proposed Budget will be recommended for discussion by all 56 City Councillors at Full Council on 24 February (7pm).

Notes

Hylands Parking Charges:

The scheme will, for the first time, ensure non-residents contribute to the park's upkeep. Currently the net costs of £520,000 (after events income in a normal year) are borne by every Chelmsford taxpayer. Residents will get a discount and some residents on low incomes or with a blue badge will park for free. It will also help manage what can be a chaotic parking situation.

Budget Balance

The table below shows a summary of how the revenue budget has changed and how it has been balanced between 2020/21 and 2021/22:

£000s

Summary Budget Movements Between 2020/21 and 2021/22

2,794

Base Budget Position shortfall

4,763

Covid Losses

7,557

Initial Budget Gap

-2,215

Government Funding

-2,101

Internal savings (above) & new income including Hylands parking charges

155

Service improvements

-1,723

Assets bought from borrowing instead of cash

-352

Extra Council Tax Income

-1,321

Use of cash balances

0

Budget Gap