04:05PM, Friday 26 November 2021
York House, Windsor
The Conservative-led Royal Borough council faced questions from opposition colleagues as its draft budget for 2022/23 went under the spotlight once more.
Councillors met at York House in Windsor yesterday (Thursday) for this month's cabinet meeting, with a packed agenda also containing the borough's demand for school places and the council's plans to change the way it runs adult and social care.
Much of the debate centred around the borough's assumption that it will receive £3million in Government grants to spend on its services next year.
RBWM's executive director of resources, Adele Taylor, explained at this week's meeting that the council is expecting to hear more detailed proposals around these grants in mid-December, and how they will be distributed into each service area.
"There is still a lack of clarity about how they are going to proportion out some of that funding," she said.
"We have addressed that in the report and have indicated that it is an estimate."
Opposition councillor John Baldwin (Lib Dem, Belmont) asked what the council's alternative would be should the estimated figure not be as accurate as council officers hope.
"If there is a shortfall, as I sadly believe there will be, other than failing to set a balanced budget, what is our plan b?" he queried.
Ms Taylor responded by repeating that the Government was currently 'unclear' about how the funding would be allocated, but the £3million figure was based 'on the best judgement we have got at this time'.
She said: "If it is different; and it could be higher or lower, then that is something we will have to look into in the final budget.
"It is the best estimate we have at this time. If we were to get more income, there is an opportunity for the council to decide whether or not they want to make any more changes or investment.
"If it goes the other way, we will have to look at anything further we can do."
Cllr Baldwin replied: "Just to be clear, if we get less than you assume - more cuts. And if we get more, we will all be dancing around the green. Did I get that about right?"
Council leader Cllr Andrew Johnson (Con, Hurley and Walthams) stepped in to say that he was not sure about the 'phraseology' of his opposition colleague's assessment.
He added: "If we get a lower than envisaged settlement, of course there will have to be a review of what other savings may be required. If we get slightly more, then there may be an opportunity to invest slightly more."
Leader of the Liberal Democrat group Cllr Simon Werner (Pinkneys Green) said that the 'assumptions' that the borough will receive £3million should instead be described as 'risks'.
"I do notice a number of expressions used for what in financial terms, are cuts," he said. "So we have 'refocused', 'service redesign', 'review', 'further transformation'."
Cllr Werner also raised the issue of arts funding, with venues such as Norden Farm in Maidenhead and the Old Court in Windsor hit hard by reduced grants in last year's budget.
He said: "Last year there was a big cut in the arts budget. In that budget it seemed to say that this year's funding for the arts would be zero. I can't believe that's true."
In response to this, the council's cabinet member for resident services, Cllr Samantha Rayner (Con, Eton and Castle) said that the Old Court and Norden Farm were 'very important to the Royal Borough'.
"We are working very closely with them on their financial sustainability," she said, adding that the borough was also looking at setting up a 'good causes lottery' to fund the 'wonderful organisations'.
Replying to Cllr Werner's remark over the words used in the report translating to 'cuts', Cllr Johnson said this was 'absolutely wrong' and made reference to the council's recent library transformation project, which he called 'the envy of the rest of England'.
Speaking on the budget itself, Cllr Johnson added: "[This budget] is different to the last two years - these were budgets to stabilise the council's financial position.
"It is fair to say that we are now back on financial track, and this budget not only seeks to build upon that work but also starts to lay down the longer term vision of this administration."
The council leader also said that raising council tax for this financial year 'is never an easy task', but after considering 'all options before us', believed it was the 'right thing to do'.
A consultation on the draft budget ahead of its final approval in February will also run from early December until the end of January, Cllr Johnson added.
Thursday's meeting also saw councillors discuss the borough's draft capital strategy for 2022/23- 2024/25, which sets out its major expenditure plans.
A total of £10million is planned for flooding prevention within Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury and Old Windsor wards, working in partnership with the Environment Agency (EA).
It comes after the borough was criticised for pulling out of an EA-backed River Thames flood defence scheme last year, which would have protected these communities from flood water.
Cllr Ewan Larcombe (National Flood Prevention Party, Datchet, Horton and Wraysbury) asked whether this cash is planned to be used on flood defences elsewhere.
Ward colleague and cabinet member for flooding, Cllr David Cannon (Con), said that the money is ring-fenced to be spent on the areas that would have been protected by the River Thames Scheme - which were the above areas.
He added that more flood money would be made available in the budget for other areas in the borough affected by this.
Elsewhere, the council is planning to invest more than £55million within its draft capital budget.
The bulk of this will be on such things as infrastructure, green spaces and transport, with £11million allocated to these kind of projects.
Meanwhile, a larger capital spend is being made in adults, health and housing this year – set to be £1.9million; while £1.6million will be put into children's services.
Cllr Stuart Carroll (Con, Boyn Hill) the lead member for health and social care and children's services, said that this year's budget is 'forward looking' and an 'investment budget'.
In total, the council proposes to deliver £3million worth of savings to deal with increased demand on its services.