Surrey Lib Dems oppose the County Council's budget for 24/25.

6 Feb 2024
Will Forster outside Woodhatch Place

Surrey Lib Dems today voted against the County Council’s budget 24/25, challenging the Conservative administration on: 

  • £10m overspend on major IT project. 

  • Money spent on compensation for poor services 

  • Use of reserves 

  • Viability of the budget 

The Leader of Surrey Lib Dems Will Forster used his speech at the full council meeting on 06 February to oppose the budget put forward by the Conservative administration. He explained why the squeeze on council budgets makes it all the more important to ‘get it right’ in all areas, to make sure the maximum amount of funds is available to deliver the quality services residents need and expect from the County Council. 

He said “The Surrey Lib Dems are of course well aware of the financial challenges facing local authorities, in particular with regard to the spiralling demand in social services for both children and adults and the impact of persistently high inflation on the cost of council services. Furthermore, we know that these are made all the worse by the government not providing sufficient funding to match Local Government’s statutory obligations, let alone to pay for any extras. 

“It is against this backdrop that we think the County Council is not doing all it can to maximise its efficiency as an authority and to make best use of the funds available to it. 

“It was both surprising and disappointing that the council’s flagship IT project, years in the making and used by a wide range of council activities including pay, purchasing and pensions, should suffer such huge delays and failures in addition to being overspent by £10m. In financial terms this equates to more than a 1% increase on the council tax bill for residents. We must ensure the right lessons are learned from this process to ensure future IT projects do not go the same way. 

“At a time when every penny counts it is also disappointing to see money having to be spent, essentially wasted on compensation for poor service delivery. Recent figures show in the last year that the Council spent around £0.5m on compensation for pothole damage as well as fines, and redress payments to families affected by delays in assessments for Education, Health, and Care Plans. This might be a relatively small amount of money in terms of the Council’s budget of more than £1bn, but it would be sufficient to pay the £400,000 needed to fund short breaks for children and young people with a disability or additional needs, previously earmarked for being cut. 

The future of local government funding is uncertain and maintaining a healthy level of reserves is of course a sensible approach and the level has remained static over the last few years and is forecast to stay at around £150m. With budgeted efficiencies of £53.7m, perhaps this would be the time to use some of this money to plug that gap for essential services. In fact, in this financial year the Council decided to do just that, drawing down £9.2m to bolster services for works on the highway and for SEN children when the budgets set proved insufficient for what was required. 

Finally, we do have to question how viable and realistic this budget is. By law the Council must set a balanced budget, but when the total amount of money it expects to receive falls short, savings need to be made. The Council describes these in the budget as ‘efficiencies’.  

In 22/23 the Council planned for almost £47m of these efficiencies but managed to achieve less than £28m of them. In the budget for next year the Council has planned for even more, a total of £53.7m! Based on past performance, making those savings and closing the budget gap will undoubtedly be a difficult challenge.”