Covid-19 impact forcing council to "think about doing things differently" in budget plans
Bath and North East Somerset Council historically relies on income streams that are now severely undermined by the Covid-19 pandemic, the council's Chief Executive Will Godfery said last week.
Speaking in a council webinar that outlined the challenges the council faces in balancing its budget, Mr Godfery emphasised that the pandemic had dealt a heavy blow to the council's incomes derived from heritage sites, parking revenues and its commercial estate. Measures like shutting the Roman Baths last March had resulted in an immediate loss of revenue and at one stage the council was losing £91,000 a day. At the same time, the council had needed to spend resources on things like protecting elderly residents and buying personal protective equipment.
The government has contributed a significant amount of money towards the loss of income and additional expenses caused by the pandemic, as well as providing money for business grants, however, this still does not amount to pound-for-pound compensation.
Most notably, there is no government support for the loss of income from the council's commercial estate which consists of properties such as council-owned shop units and office space. Since our council depends so heavily on this income, it may be left in a worse position than other local authorities.
Mr Godfery commented on the need to "think about doing things differently" and later said that "We need to look at the whole financial basis for the authority".
One potential change could be the notion of converting redundant retail space into rented accommodation. The details of new proposals will be heard at the Budget & Council Tax meeting on 23rd February.
Closing the budget hole
According to the webinar, a budget gap of over £20 million has been identified, with the rising cost of adult and children's services adding to financial pressures.
The council intends to take £10 million from internal reserves to help plug the gap, aiming to repay that money over the next three to four years. This would leave a remaining hole of around £11.61 million which the council plans to tackle by making savings in the forthcoming budget.
Councillor Richard Samuel, cabinet member for Resources, said that the option of a 2% rise in Council Tax was still being looked at, along with the possibility of introducing a social care precept to support vulnerable children and adults. Councillor Samuel also revealed that the council will be launching a voluntary contributions scheme whereby residents can choose to pay more if they wish.
Despite the challenging economic situation, the council aims to deliver on the priorities set out in its Corporate Strategy. These include creating Liveable Neighbourhoods, renewing high streets, protecting the vulnerable and tackling the climate and ecological emergency.
Councillor Samuel discussed how the council remains committed to its priorities. For example, a new junior school in Keynsham will be built according to the best low carbon standards. Government money has been provided to continue offering accommodation to rough sleepers; and the council will fund free meals for eligible children during the Easter school holiday. There is also a project to assess the damage caused by the pandemic to the vitality of the city centre and devise ways to brighten it up.
A right time to forge ahead?
One criticism that may arise is the question of whether this is a good time for the council to invest in its more controversial schemes.
The council's theme of 'protection' leads to its proposal to restrict vehicle access to Bath's more crowded city centre streets. But the Abbey Residents' Association perceives a risk that the project could in some ways make the city centre a less attractive place to live, thus deepening the challenges faced by the city's struggling retailers.
Meanwhile, the council's Liveable Neighbourhoods strategy involves plans to have Low Traffic Neighbourhoods that are closed to through traffic. But the Federation of Bath Residents' Associations notes that these have proved divisive in London and risk displacing traffic from one neighbourhood to another.
If such schemes fare badly - and if the council finds it harder than expected to balance the books - then many Bathonians may ask why money was invested in projects that could have been left on the back burner through this difficult period.
The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a sudden loss of income from heritage sites