The Budget Scrutiny Task Force, made up of members of both scrutiny committees, has done a thorough job, and brought up issues that have concerned observers.
The full report is available here and will be presented to the Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee tonight (6pm) and be considered by the Cabinet and Full Council as part of the budget process.
The report tackles the lack of fit between the Draft Borough Plan and the Council's climate strategy (Rec.1) as well as asking for more transparency so that cuts in services are actually called that rather than 'savings' etc (2) . The likely rise in Council Tax of 4.99% brinsg a recommendation that the Council review eligibility for the Council Tax Support Scheme and the Resident Support Fund (4). The danger of digital exclusion (6) as the Council relies more on such provision is partially addressed with a recommendation that help be provided for digital form filling. There is a call for more active lobbying of the appropriate bodies on a range of funding issues (9) including on the reform of Council Tax.
Plan 2023-27 Alignment
It is important that the proposed budget properly aligns with the strategic priorities identified in the upcoming Borough Plan 2023-27. The Task Group are concerned that the draft budget omits solid proposals to deliver on our strategic priorities around our climate commitments, including our goal to become Carbon Net Zero by 2030. There is a real opportunity for the Council to clearly communicate the relationship between its strategic priorities and budget proposals to residents, local councillors, and partners. The Council should strive to publish both the Budget and Borough Plan at the same time but the Task Group has noted that this has been challenging on this occasion due to time restraints and budget uncertainties.
The Task Group recommend that the Council more clearly demonstrates how public money is being spent in line with the democratically agreed strategic priorities for the borough.
Recommendation 2 – Proposal Categorisations
The Task Group are concerned with how the draft budget proposals were being presented to residents. It was noted that using language such as ‘savings’ in past budget setting processes may have been acceptable; however, on this occasion this is not applicable due to the great amount that needs to be cut from the budget moving forward. Given that the Council has to continue to deliver savings over the next two years to balance the budget, there is a greater need for resident’s expectations to be managed correctly and honestly to ensure that they are prepared for the difficult changes to important services.
The Task Group recommend that each budget proposal is categorised as one of: Cut; Income generation; Service transformation; Efficiency; or Investment for transparency purposes. This language should also be used in Council communications in order for residents to distinguish between the proposals which are cuts/service reductions, those which are investments, and those which are efficiencies/service transformation.
Recommendation 3 – Income Generation
The Task Group welcome and are encouraged by the Council’s efforts to identify options for income generation. We would encourage officers to continue being innovative in identifying further opportunities for income generation to offset the impact that many of the proposals will have on vital council services. Specifically, around increasing parking fees/charges and generating income from our assets, such as parks. With regards to the former, we note the Chief Executive’s comments around ensuring that if we are able to increase parking fees/charges, that the messaging to residents would have to be very clear in specifying that any charges recouped from parking fees would be reinvested in highways infrastructure as is legally required. However, any fee/charge increases must adopt a balanced approach that accounts for the impact of the Cost of Living crisis on different communities.
We would also like to stress that utilising our parks to generate income could assist us in our legacy work as ‘Borough of Culture 2020’.
The Task Group recommend that the Council:
• Increase parking fees/charges to a more comparable rate charged by surrounding boroughs to secure safe movement of traffic and adequate parking and;
• Utilise our parks to generate additional income – as part of this process, the Council should draw comparisons with other local authorities to learn from good practice.
Recommendation 4 – Additional Financial Support for Residents
The Task Group note the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, which gives provision for local authorities to raise Council Tax by a maximum of 4.99% without a referendum. We appreciate the Council is likely to have no other viable options but to raise Council Tax by this amount to navigate the current financial challenges. However, Council Tax is a regressive tax; should this increase happen, the Task Group is concerned that this may cause greater hardship to those residents who currently do not qualify for relief under the Council Tax Support Scheme or Resident Support Fund. Additionally, the Task Group are
concerned that in response to tax increases, along with rising energy costs and unaffordable rents, it is frequently only food which is left for residents and families to sacrifice.
The Task Group therefore recommend that the Council:
• Increases funding and reviews the eligibility criteria for both the Council Tax Support scheme and the Resident Support Fund, should the financial modelling process allow and;
• Explores options to provide additional support to children to tackle food poverty, such as extending universal free school meals provision.
Recommendation 5 – Additional Advice & Support for our Voluntary Sector partners
It is clear that our voluntary sector partners are also experiencing significant financial difficulty and, like the Council, have been subject to consistent budget reductions over the last 10 years. The voluntary sector provide vital support for many residents and act as a safety net for the Council by going above and beyond to offer services that are beyond their traditional remit (e.g. food aid). The Task Group are satisfied that the Council is doing the best it can to protect the voluntary sector and frontline services in its proposed budget. However, it is likely that in the future funding to the voluntary sector could be scaled back. It is important we provide the voluntary sector with its own safety net.
To assist in building voluntary sector resilience, the Task Group recommend that the Council develops:
• An approach to increase the value of the commissioned contracts offered to the VCS to help them navigate the current volatile economic environment. The Council could also use this as an opportunity to tighten and improve its contract monitoring process to ensure further robustness and transparency in achieving outcomes.
• A collaborative strategy with the VCS to enable these organisations to identify and secure new income streams. This should also include scope for increased opportunities to make joint bids for grant funding.
• A transparent policy for distributing Council community assets to our voluntary partners in need of space. Specifically, offering capped peppercorn rents to the sector to expand their operations.
Recommendation 6 – Equal Access for All Residents
The Task Group understands the importance of the Council taking advantage of the opportunities/benefits associated with digital transformation, especially when taking into consideration the possible savings and efficiencies they can provide. However, we are still mindful that not all automated services are fit for purpose nor accessible to all residents (e.g. those who are digitally excluded, those with disabilities etc.)
The Task Group recommend that:
• The proposed automated services (e.g. chat bots) are tested by residents ahead of implementation, especially by those who have accessibility needs to ensure that all residents have equal access to services and;
• Additional advice and support is provided to disabled residents and those cohorts of residents with other access needs (e.g. literacy needs/English not a first language etc.) to navigate digital-form filling so they can maximise the benefits/grants they are eligible for and entitled to.
Recommendation 7 – Improving Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs)
The Task Group noted that the Council has undertaken individual equality impact assessments (EIA) on each proposal, but improvements could be made to the current process to ensure greater transparency so EIAs are not seen as a ‘tick box’ exercise.
The Task Group recommend that the Council:
• Include an evidence base/rationale section in the EIA for each proposal where it has been deemed that there are no potential or likely impact on service users and employees with protected characteristics (e.g. how the Council arrived at such decisions) and;
• Undertake a cumulative equality impact assessment of the budget decisions since 2018 to understand fully the medium and long-term impacts of its financial decisions. It is
recommended a cumulative EqIA is completed during financial year 2023/24 and is included in the final budget report 2024/25.
Recommendation 8- Increased Collaboration
The Task Group is not clear on how health partners will be involved in the decision-making around in agreeing step down plans into general needs accommodation (proposal AH05). This partnership is vital to ensure our most vulnerable residents have the appropriate support in place at the right time, especially considering the difficulties in recruiting and retaining high quality staff. More generally this proposal raises interest from the Task Group regarding how we can work better with the NHS and other stakeholders around hospital discharges e.g. how we collectively mitigate the risks around discharge, and how we leverage contributions from partners/agencies in providing high quality social care and support. At present we have concerns that the rising costs in Adult Social Care cannot be met by the Council alone, where there is a need for clarity on the NHS funding responsibilities.
To ensure a holistic approach to residents’ care, specifically ‘those with complex needs’, the Task Group recommend that:
• A collaborative mechanism is established between the Council, NHS, and other relevant stakeholders to agree discharges/step down plans. If possible, this should be considered as part of the review process currently taking place with Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust (CNWL) in the Integrated Care Partnership and;
• The Council leverage sufficient financial contributions from the NHS (and other relevant anchor institutions) to improve the Health & Social Care function in Brent.
Recommendation 9 – Lobbying
We note that many of the challenges in the draft budget proposals are reliant on the powers and funding from central government to be resolved.
The Task Group therefore recommend that the Council works closely with neighbouring local authorities, London Councils, and the Local Government Association (LGA) to seek:
• Additional funding in the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), notably the High Needs Block of the DSG which is currently in deficit. Although the Task Group is pleased with the activity undertaken to manage the deficit and despite the fact that the Council will see increased funding from central government, there is still a need for additional financial support to meet rising demand.
• Powers to levy proportionate charges on parked motorcycles/mopeds. If successful, this would enable the Council to expand the parking permit system in the borough to include other forms of vehicles.
• Local Government funding reform, including reform of regressive taxes such as Council Tax.
• Changes to gambling legislation and regulations that enable local authorities to generate additional income from gambling licensing fees. This money could then be used to reinvest in vital Council services.
• The introduction of ‘Short Term Letting’ legislation that will allow local authorities to
establish licensing schemes for ‘Air B&B’ accommodation in their respective boroughs.
This would enable the Council to generate additional income from ‘Air B&B’ businesses in Brent that could then be reinvested back into services for the benefit of residents.
Recommendation 10- Phased Reduction to Care Packages Provision
In relation to proposal CYP03, the Task Group note that the Children and Young People department has identified discrepancies between care packages and the need for clarity and consistency in regards to the eligibility criteria and presenting needs when determining the level of support to be provided. The Task Group supports the review of care packages and better aligning resources to the evidenced needs of children; however we still have concerns about the impact this proposal could have on disabled children in the borough as a whole if the cut to overall provision is made over one financial year.
The Task Group recommend that a proportion of the additional funding from the Local Government Finance Settlement is used to enable the Council to defer a proportion of the savings in this proposal to financial year 24/25. This is to ensure changes in provision are implemented in a phased way.
Recommendation 11- Review Areas of Focus for Town Centre Management Function
The Task Group believe the current town centre management infrastructure has made great strides in revitalising our town centres and supporting our businesses. This has been essential post-covid and in the current economic climate. We felt assured that proposal CR05 would not impact service delivery, however we believe this proposal presents an opportunity for the Council to rethink its town centre management structure to ensure more effective focus on economically deprived areas.
The Task Group recommend reviewing the areas of focus for the town centre management function, whereby resource can be balanced against need; and work duplication prevented.
Recommendation 12 – Mitigating the impact of reducing the library stock budget
Although proposal RS08 is likely to have a small impact in the context of the collective budget proposals, the Task Group has concerns with the potential impact that this specific proposal could have on Brent’s most vulnerable residents, and in particular children.
The Task Group recommend that the Council explores external options to leverage additional resources for our most vulnerable residents, such as the promotion of schemes (e.g. Letterbox Club run by BookTrust) offering free books to vulnerable and disadvantaged children. This could help offset the impact of the proposal on disadvantaged residents and children; and could assist with ensuring children in Brent have equal access to a broad range of reading material.
Recommendation 13 – Mitigating the impact of reducing the Corporate Learning and Training budget
The Task Group recommend that the Council be guided by staff satisfaction surveys when deciding what training courses to discontinue as part of the reduction to the Corporate Learning and Training budget (GOV03).
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