From the Council Leadership - Financial Facts

25 Jan 2024
Stephen Conway

First the good news. Wokingham Borough Council will receive £0.67 million more from government towards supporting its revenue budget for 2024/5.  The revenue budget pays for ongoing expenditure on services, such as in adult and children's social care.  In addition, we will be able to retain about £1.5 million of local business rates, most of which go to the government, not to the council.

Now for the bad news.  That extra money does not begin to cover our addiional costs, even if you include the £1.5 million from retained business rates.  

Rising demand for services, in many areas, but especially in adult and children's social care, and the increasing cost of delivering those services, will be adding an estimated £17.3 million to our revenue budget pressures.  Wokingham has more adults and children with learning disabilities, per head of population, than almost any other council area in the country.

For the sake of completeness, I should say that the council receives considerable sums from government for local education provision.  But very nearly all of that money has to be passed on to schools, all but a few of which are self-governing academies outside the council's control; the money passed on to schools is not available for the council to spend on the services for which it is responsible.

The council also receives various grants for capital projects, but this can be used to cover ongoing costs only in very special and carefully defined circumstances; in nearly all cases, it has to be used to pay for a specific one-off cost, such as building a new Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) school.

The council has been successful in bidding for government grants, most notably last year, when we received a capital grant to build two new SEND schools in the south of the borough.  But this money was by no means guaranteed to us when we set our budget; the council won out in a competitive process, and had to prove that its proposal was better than that of other local authorities.  Our success was due to the hard work and dedication of the council's officers, aided by my colleague Cllr Prue Bray, the executive member for children's services.

In short, while the council has had some notable successes in bidding for capital funds, it receives very little support from government to deliver ongoing services on which many residents rely.  Wokingham Borough Council receives the smallest amount of core service funding from central government of any council in England that has to pay for complex and expensive needs in adult and children's social care.  That was true under previous administrations led by the Conservatives, and it's still true now that the council is led by the Liberal Democrats.

The government's response is that Wokingham's population is wealthy and so should pay for its council services through the council tax.

Yet the wealth of the borough is not evenly distributed; we have some very rich people but they are few in number and their enormous wealth skews the picture considerably.  The council tax is a blunt instrument for raising a contribution to cover the costs of services.  The super rich pay more than those living in much less affluence, but not proportionately more.  Indeed, the council tax, as currently constituted by government, hits those on middle and lower incomes disproportionately hard. 

Wokingham Borough Council, then, is not well supported by government, and never has been.  Yet it faces particular challenges in meeting increased demand and costs of delivering adult and children's services. 

We will not let that deter us from producing a balanced budget.  We know that the cost of failure is high - the government sends in commissioners to run councils that cannot balance the books, and those commissioners inflict deep cuts in services and levy a rate of council tax double the government's cap.  The list of councils where this has happened is growing all the time.  

We are determined that Wokingham will not be one of them.  Sound financial management, and a willingness to take tough decisions, saved us last year and will save us in the years to come.

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