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INTERVIEW: "No shockers" in next Lancaster City Council budget plans as defecit falls to £1.7m

Lancaster Town Hall

A leading councillor said he hopes for "no shockers" in the next Lancaster City Council budget as plans are being drawn up to bridge a £1.7m gap.

Councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox was speaking as the council asked for the public's views on how to fill the estimated budget defecit for the financial year of 2024/25.

This time last year, the council faced a £2.8m defecit, but going into the next budget, the gap is currently at around £1.7m.

In 2023/24, the council had to make £2.4m worth of cuts, including closing Lancaster and Morecambe Visitor Information Centres with the loss of jobs, and had to pay around £580,000 from its reserves to balance the budget.

Read more: INTERVIEWS: Full breakdown of "painful" Lancaster City Council budget plans revealed - Beyond Radio

There were also cuts to museums' opening hours, and talk of pulling out of operating the Platform in Morecambe, although the council has recently decided to continue to run the arts and concert venue.

Read more: Morecambe’s Platform venue saved from closure after council u-turn - Beyond Radio

On Wednesday, Beyond Radio asked Councillor Hamilton-Cox, cabinet member for finance (pictured below), if there were likely to be any similar services at risk next year.

LISTEN to Councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox

He said: "I can't give that kind of definitive guidance. There are no shockers, if you like, on the scale of the VICs that have been decided, and I'm not even sure they are within view.

"There are a lot of proposals. It's always about selecting least worst options."

His colleague from the Green group, council deputy leader Caroline Jackson (pictured below) said: "We have lot of ambitions and it's how we manage those ambitions to make sure they happen.

"We have to make sure we have the resource for things like Eden (Project Morecambe), where we really want to achieve something, but it's without our control at the moment. 

"When Tim says 'no shockers' it's more about trying to get things in line, and we do have to prioritise some things over others."

Lancaster City Council's budget plans for 2024/25 come amid a backdrop where other councils around the UK are in dire straits, including Nottingham City Council which issued a section 114 notice earlier this week, effectively declaring itself bankrupt.

Last year, there were warnings that Lancaster City Council could face the same fate.

Read more: "Bankrupt" warning as Lancaster City Council faces grim financial future - Beyond Radio

But Councillor Hamilton-Cox said on Wednesday: “We put an awful lot of work in.

"Many councils across the country are setting ambitious savings targets and are getting into trouble because they're not delivering them. We are consistently achieving against our targets. I can't praise the senior leadership team (at Lancaster City Council) highly enough.

"We were feeling a bit spooked, a year ago. There is a degree of confidence around 2024/25. It looks more difficult, going forward.

"We look at the challenges that have been set for previous years and we've met those challenges, but that doesn't mean to say there aren't painful decisions like the closure of the VICs.

"A much greater contribution was restructuring our vacant posts, that made a big difference in 2023/4, and going forward, which required officers to shuffle jobs around. That was a less painful way of delivering the savings. We can't keep doing that.

"The deficit we're still facing for 2024/5 is subject to change because there are a number of variables, for example the increase in business rates that may be received. If Heysham 1 (power station) goes off-line in 2026, that will have an impact.

"There is a lot of number crunching to be done. There are a lot of reviews of the council's operations being done now.

"Where my priorities lie, in order to achieve the closing of that deficit, is particularly the council's energy costs and property costs, and where we've got trading entities like the Storey Centre, Williamson Park and the Platform, how we can get better financial outcomes from those.

"We have been helped this year to a degree by energy prices backing off. But there is still significant expenditure incurred on gas and electricity. The council has invested government grant money as well as its own, in order to reduce energy demand, most spectacularly at Salt Ayre (Leisure Centre, pictured below) where we've effectively stopped using gas by buIlding a solar farm and investing in heat pumps.

"We've moved staff out of Palatine Hall (into Lancaster Town Hall) and we now have a commercial tenant in there on a long lease (Chiptech software company). That is a good example of what is achievable."

He also said the council was in a "relatively favourable position" with its around £18m in usable reserves but they could "be depleted quite quickly if we don't keep a grip on it".

“The council is continuously reviewing how services are provided to ensure they are delivering all they can for communities and the local economy," he said.

"To help us make what may be difficult decisions when we set the council’s budget, we need to know which areas people value the most and the reasons why.” You can get involved by sharing your views on how the council's resources could be best used in a short online survey here. The survey closes on Sunday December 17. Anyone without access to the internet can pick up a paper copy of the survey from the town halls in Lancaster and Morecambe between 9am and 1pm, Monday to Friday. The council will also be conducting drop-in consultation events with the first taking place on Wednesday December 6 at at the War Memorial Gardens in Carnforth from 10am until 12pm. This will be followed by a drop-in at Morecambe library on Friday December 8 from 10am-2.30pm. Further dates and locations will be announced once confirmed.

Lancaster City Council, which provides hundreds of services including waste collection, street cleaning, maintaining parks and playgrounds, providing CCTV and supporting arts, culture and entertainment, sets a budget every year in February.

In 2023/24, the council spent around £25m on staff costs, around £2m on supplies and services, around £7m on its premises and around £4m on debt repayment. It pulled in £20m through fees and charges (including from its car parks in the Lancaster district) £11m from Council Tax and business rates, and £4.5m from other incomes.

Following this year's local elections, the council is run by a coalition cabinet of Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat councillors, with Labour having the largest group.

The council's revenue support grant from the Government has fallen from £15m in 2010/11 to around £406,000, with the latest amount set to be confirmed in December. Its share of Council Tax rose by 2.99 per cent in 2023/4.

Budget proposals will go before the council cabinet in January 2024, before a vote on the budget by full council in February.

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