Underspends, overspends

A meeting of the county council’s General Purposes Committee this morning – just a few months into the year and parts of the council budget are already beginning to be reorganised.

Some of the savings the council thought it would make through shared services with other councils aren’t being realised. Costs are rising in services for children and older people particularly, but on the plus side, there’s more council tax and business rate income than expected, and money from additional government grants and a slower-than-planned laptop replacement programme. It’s not enough to fill the hole, though.

Around £7 million of the additional costs the council is experiencing will recur in future years, but only £3.3 million of the corresponding extra income and savings. So next year’s expected budget gap is getting bigger not smaller.

We approved spending on the council’s computer systems: partly because of the council’s move to Alconbury, partly due to the ever-closer integration of Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council, and partly because it’s computers and they always cost money.  If you’ve got more staff working for both councils, for good or ill, having shared data and systems and stuff in ‘the cloud’ makes sense.

We also agreed to start getting a new contract in place for the council’s banking.

My Lib Dem colleagues and I didn’t support the proposal to spend £147,000 on consultants to advise the council on its acquisitions and investment strategy – though in fact they’d already been appointed two months ago and bringing the matter to the committee after the fact did seem a little like window-dressing. The council seems a little desperate to acquire things, any things (student accommodation blocks, cinemas, supermarkets), whether they’re inherently good investments or not, to get its commercial strategy up and running and a bit of money rolling in to put into the pot for next year’s budget.

Officers requested, and were granted, £274,000 on less than entirely robust evidence, to spend on trying to reduce the costs of special educational needs placements.

We agreed a draft update to the council’s energy strategy. There’s some absolutely tremendous work going on in this team, but this update seemed a little premature, as we also agreed today to set up a five-councillor advisory group, including myself, to work with council officers on developing a climate change and environment strategy. The energy strategy will surely need to fit into this, and the work on climate change and the environment will be bound to throw up some challenges – for example, the use of huge amounts of reasonable grade arable land for solar farms when we could be using it to improve our food security.

Finally, we excluded the press and public to talk about two items in confidential session: a proposal for the council to acquire a commercial property in Cambridge; and a matter relating to the council’s waste Private Finance Initiative contract.

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