Battle to balance the books as Calderdale Council faces budget overspend of nearly £3m

Calderdale Council is facing tough challenges to balance its books
Calderdale Council is facing tough challenges to balance its books

The cost of funding external placements for vulnerable children and young people means efforts will have to be redoubled to balance Calderdale Council’s budget by the end of the financial year.

Calderdale Council’s Cabinet heard that despite measures taken a month ago to tackle a potential overspend of £2.2 million, the council’s forecast overspend is £2.8 million.

Most services are balancing their budgets with the new position arising from a £643,000 overspend in Public Services, this following use of £1 million from reserves, and the majority a £2,1 million overspend following use of £1.4 million from reserves.

But with reserves at a minimum safety level, other ways of saving cash will have to be found.

Cabinet member for Resources, Performance and Business Change, Coun Jane Scullion (Lab, Luddenden Foot) said the largest part of the overspend was the increasing cost of funding external placements for some of the borough’s most vulnerable children and young people.

This is a legal requirement as well as a moral obligation and the high cost – previously councillors have been told demand for these places outstrips supply – is something Calderdale is trying to tackle, for example, promoting and recruiting more in-house care like fostering.

Coun Scullion said this was a problem for councils all over the country.

Of the projected overspend, she said: “That’s not a position we want to be in – I hope to be reporting at the next monitor a rather different position.

“I must repeat a very large part of the overspend relates to external placements for looked-after children and that’s the most significant budget pressure nationally.”

Coun Susan Press asked if national government was refusing to listen to what local authorities across the country were telling them.

“Local government cannot go on and sustain itself indefinitely without a change of policy and an end to austerity,” she said.

Calderdale had lost £100 million of funding since 2010, she said, and added “officers and elected members will continue to do their very best to come up with solutions and answers – but it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible.”

Coun Megan Swift (Lab, Town) and Coun Bob Metcalfe (Lab, Town) spoke about pressures their respective services, Children’s and Young people’s and Adults’ services, were under.

Coun Scullion said some extra money which had been made available by the Government in the recent budget was “too little, too late.”

But Conservative group leader on the council, Coun Scott Benton (Con, Brighouse) said it was clear the position had significantly deteriorated since the last monitor.

The budget gap had been developing for years and the council had been aware of it but not tackled it – that was not the fault of central government.

“Your administration has to be proactive at reducing budget pressures where they exist,” he told the ruling Labour councillors.

“Residents up and down Calderdale will be extremely alarmed at this hole in the budget and will be worried about what that will mean in terms of a huge Council Tax rise next year,” he said.

Coun Steven Leigh (Con, Ryburn) expressed concerns and asked for reassurance about the pressure on reserves – the report to Cabinet said of the gap was covered by reserves these would fall to £4.5 million, half a million pounds less than the level councillors have been warned not to go under.

Coun Scullion replied: “The short answer is yes – over my dead body we go below £5 million.”

Coun Leigh said he hoped Coun Scullion would not need to do that and if the Conservative group could help they would. “We are all concerned about doing what is best for this borough,” he said.

Coun Barry Collins (Lab, Illingworth and Mixenden) said election results in Calderdale recently showed people were supporting Labour’s approach with the group aiming to deliver a balanced budget again.

Member of the public and former councillor Geoff Fielden was invited to comment and said with an overspend over the last five years of £1 million by the council’s legal section it was about time it was put out to tender.

“The domestic helps, they went – why can’t legal?” he said.

Council leader and Cabinet chair Coun Tim Swift (Lab, Town) said from what he had seen the cost would go up rather than down if that happened.

Councillors agreed to keep monitoring the situation along with Strategy and Performance Scrutiny Board while officers redouble efforts to make savings and Cabinet will receive details of 2018-19’s last monitor in January next year.